June 18, 2024

How to Send a Style Guide Discussion Straight to Hell

From time to time it’s necessary for copy editors to have discussions about style. Maybe an issue keeps popping up that isn’t quite covered by your style manual or house style, and you need to decide how to handle it. Maybe it’s been a while since you reviewed your house style guide, and you want to review it and make sure it’s still useful and relevant. Or maybe you don’t even have a house style guide and need to decide what should go in it so that you and your coworkers can all be on the same page.

And from time to time you may also find it necessary to do whatever it takes to prevent that discussion from taking place. Perhaps you don’t want it to become apparent that you haven’t kept up with changes to The Chicago Manual of Style since the early ’90s. Perhaps you realize deep down that your style preferences are all indefensible, and you want to avoid being put in an awkward position. Perhaps you’re used to getting your way and don’t know how to handle differing opinions in a healthy manner. Or perhaps you’re simply afraid of change.

Whatever the reason, if you find yourself in such a position, here are five simple tips for sabotaging style discussions at work.

Tip #1: Delay

The easiest way to ruin a style discussion is simply to put off having it. When the topic of updating or codifying your house style guide comes up in staff meeting, say that you haven’t had a chance to look at the issues first. You can also suggest that now’s not a good time to have the discussion because you’ve got too much to do and need to get back to work. With this simple combination, you can keep kicking the can down the road for months. It has the added effect of making you seem more valuable than everyone else because you’re so busy.

Tip #2: Divert

When you can’t put it off any longer and are finally forced to have the discussion, start by asking if the house style guide is just a style guide or if it’s more of a training document. If it’s a style guide, then maybe it doesn’t make sense to repeat a bunch of rules that are already found in Chicago, but if it’s a training document, then maybe it makes sense to put all of those common Chicago rules in there to provide an easy reference for the interns and help them get up to speed faster. With any luck, you’ll kick off an argument that will waste several minutes and sap everyone’s collective will to keep the discussion going.

Once the debate settles down and your coworkers all agree that the purpose of the house style guide is, indeed, to serve as a house style guide, see if you can keep things going by interjecting “Oh, I just thought it might be helpful for the interns to put those things in there” a few more times, as if the matter still isn’t quite settled.

Tip #3: Disrupt

When your coworkers suggest dropping a particular house style rule and just following Chicago’s advice on the issue, respond by arguing that just because Chicago says something is okay doesn’t mean it is—we should have higher standards. Use this argument to pivot into a broader rant about how nobody reads anymore, how most of our readers are culturally illiterate, and how almost none of our designers know anything about fine typography. A simple question about end-of-line hyphenation quickly descends into an exhausting debate about whether accepting a longstanding industry standard is somehow contributing to societal decline.

Tip #4: Disorient

If you’ve thus far failed to persuade your coworkers to keep all your arbitrary preferences in the style guide, switch to complete non sequiturs. Try alternating between contradictory statements like “I just don’t know why we would change the way we’ve always done it” and “Well, if you guys don’t think we need any of these rules, let’s just throw them all out and stick with Chicago.” Your coworkers will quickly become exhausted from trying to figure out how to respond to your constantly shifting position.

Tip #5: Disengage

Once your coworkers are all thoroughly enervated and exasperated, try to opt out of the discussion altogether. Say something like, “Well, you guys can do whatever you want. I’ll just do what I want on my projects.” If someone points out that the whole purpose of a house style guide is to make sure you’re all on the same page, argue that your projects are different, so you don’t need to follow the same rules as everyone else. Bonus points if you can sneak in an implication that your projects are more important than everyone else’s.

By the end, your coworkers will be so mentally and emotionally drained by the discussion and so bewildered by your hostility that they’ll gladly abandon the topic and avoid bringing up any other style questions for a good six months or more. Then you can happily go back to following your own idiosyncratic style rules while leaving the rest of your department to fumble along without any common body of rules to ensure consistency or simplify decision-making.

That is, until someone once again has the temerity to suggest that, hey, maybe it would be a good idea to write some of these rules down.


Editing, Style 4 Replies to “How to Send a Style Guide Discussion Straight to Hell”
Jonathon Owen
Jonathon Owen


4 thoughts on “How to Send a Style Guide Discussion Straight to Hell

    Author’s gravatar

    And if all else fails, resort to the topic of regulation, particularly as it applies to social media.

    Author’s gravatar

    Buy six of the leading style guide sellers and 2 or 3 cases of beer. Initiate a lively discussion among your staffers about how even these volumes can’t agree how to handle the minutiae of writing, spelling, punctuating (I give you the Oxford comma), and pronouncing words in English. Heck, I doubt if there is agreement concerning style guide or style book, stylebook or styleguide.
    Just pick one reference book.
    Make clear to all in your editorial community that this is the new authoritative style volume for all to use. No exceptions. Recruit, equip, and train a firing squad. Have it conduct marksmanship drill in the parking lot two or three lunch hours a week. Writers and editors will eventually get the point even if you’ve chosen The Electrical Engineering Guide to Publishing Research as the source for all questions of English style. Choose clarity. Mandate certainty. Hardly anyone notices silliness these days.

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