Undergraduate Adventures: Style Guide

Corrections are wonderful.

For the academic year, I’m the student newspaper’s copy editor. It’s actually quite a bit of work: after the editors take a look at submitted stories, I comb them over for inaccuracies and grammar errors. When the editors lay out the pages, I look at proofs to catch any last errors before the paper goes to print. I look at about 30 stories every week, and I look over each one at least twice.

The other part of my job is to make sure that the newspaper follows a coherent style. For the most part, I look to the Associated Press stylebook for help. But there are things that are specific to the university that AP doesn’t cover: how to spell the name of the baseball field, for example, or who the dean of the library is. And from what I know, no one had written (or updated) a specific stylebook recently.

So I made one.

4 pages of beauty.
4 pages of beauty.

It’s a hybrid style guide and information sheet; for example, the AP stylebook generally doesn’t mention specific peoples’ names. I borrowed a lot from AP and the official university style guide, but now everything is all in one place for me, the editors and the staff writers. Otherwise, I would have to traverse the university’s website.

I learned a couple of things in making the style guide:

Using style doesn’t come first nature for a lot of people.

This isn’t meant to bash anyone, but most people are not detail-oriented.  A writer could have strong reporting skills and be wonderful on-camera, but doesn’t care much about AP style basics. His or her brain just might not work that way.

This is completely okay, because it makes my job relevant and always gives me something to do. I have no inclination to be a television reporter, but I liked learning about style for work and AP style in Reporting I and went with it.

A style guide is a living document.

Part of the guide details how to spell different administrative officials’ names and their exact titles. These people will leave for other jobs or retire, so the guide will have to be updated to stay useful and relevant. Other things will have to change too: when we get new buildings that have acronyms for nicknames, if something moves or doesn’t exist anymore, etcetera.  I think it’s neat that something I’ve made will change as time goes on, but the framework will still be there.

Language has an evolutionary aspect to it, and so does a stylebook. This year’s editorial staff will add to the guide and eventually approve it, but the future generations might want to add something that didn’t exist before or do something different. Knowing that I’ve at least provided the basis of a resource is satisfying enough, and I won’t mind if they change the style to something that is mandated by AP or works better.

Making a style guide is very self-reflective.

The entire time I was writing the first draft of the guide, I was incredibly self-conscious of the style I was using and my grammar. In that way, it was a great exercise in reviewing the guidelines.

The guide will make me more aware of my own editing, which is always welcome, but it also gives me the chance to really think about the reasoning behind the style choices and the effects of those choices. Someone will probably ask me why we don’t refer to professors as Dr. So-and-so in articles, or why “president” is capitalized in some instances and not others. I’ll have to explain why we make those choices, and learn more about what those choices are doing to the reader.

And most importantly, it reminds me that I’m not a cyborg.

Next week we’ll have to print a correction, because I screwed up on an important historical date for the university. It wasn’t in the guide, even though I should have put it in there. If I was a truly perfect copy editor, I wouldn’t need a guide. AP wouldn’t put it out if students were the only people buying it, and I’m sure Theodore Bernstein needed stylebooks at his desk. And in all honesty, being perfect is a horrible way to live life.

I’m not beating myself up too much about it, because it didn’t make anyone’s life miserable. And now I’ll know for next time, and potentially save the next copy editor a major headache.

Sometimes even good copy editors screw up.

Had any good undergrad (or post-grad) adventures lately? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

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