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House vs Standard Style

I have spent the bulk of the last few years of my career being the top editor at various publications. There are a lot of benefits to being the one in charge, but the one I want to talk about today is one I didn’t even really ever give much thought to – the “house” style.

In most of the worlds I write and edit for, Associated Press, or AP, is the go-to style. It was originally created for newspapers, to minimize the number of precious characters that were taken up by extra, unneeded punctuation (which is why most people, myself included, who use AP style have developed an irrational hatred for the Oxford comma). But I would dare to say there is no publication out there, anywhere, that uses pure AP. Most of us base most of our formatting and grammatical decisions based on AP style, and we default to that standard when encountering something we don’t write about every day. However, I don’t think there is an editor alive who doesn’t have a few “house style” quirks.

I never really gave it much thought. When I’m the one making the final approvals before something goes to press or goes live on a Web site, I’m going to make sure the grammar, formatting and spelling all meet my expectations. And I taught those under me what I looked for and what I considered “clean” copy when it was turned in to me, just as the editors who taught and trained me did when I was moving up the ranks.

But now I’m in a position where I’m working for multiple people, both writing and editing, and I’m discovering just how many of my own quirks aren’t necessarily standard AP, and how many quirks my fellow editors all carry as well. Let’s take the em dash as an example. That long dash is used to set off a thought within a sentence, often providing additional context or information. And whether you use the full em dash, it’s smaller sibling the en dash, or just eschew the prefix and use a plain dash varies wildly. As in every single publication I write or edit for has a different policy in place for which to use when. And it gets even more confusing when you add in spacing. Some publications want a space on either side of the dash, while others are very clear that there is no space at all, the dash should butt right up against the words on either side.

It got to the point where I now have a sticky note on the bulletin in front of my computer detailing which dash to use where, and how many spaces each one takes.

And today, working with another editor, I ran into another one: punctuation and quote marks. I was taught, and have continued to use in my career, that punctuation goes inside the quote marks when it is a full, actual quote, but for any other usage of the quote marks, the punctuation goes outside. So in the first paragraph of this blog, for example, if “house” had fallen at the end of the sentence, I would have closed the quotes and then used the period. But another editor I am working with asked me why I was sending him copy with errors in the punctuation, and it turns out, unless it’s a question mark, he always, always puts the punctuation inside of the quote marks.

I guess I need another sticky note to remind me not to make that mistake with those publications anymore, since at the end of the day, I’m editing to his standards, and my job is to make his life easier.

But when we got to talking about it, it made me realize just how much we, as editors, tend to default to our own house styles, and over time, we forget that they aren’t the base AP style, but a hybrid version that is highly personalized, made up of what we learned in school and the combined quirks of the editors who first mentored us in this business.

And, hopefully, this realization will make me an even better editor, since I will be more vigilant now about double checking that I’m not trying to impose my own idea of house style onto work I’m doing for other editors and writers. I strive to always keep learning and keep pushing myself to be better, and with luck, having this particular board hit me upside the head will lead to just that.

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