Archive for tools

A crash course on magazine style guides

As a copy editor, I’ve worked with more than a dozen magazines, including consumer, custom, trade and web publications. No matter what category, magazines benefit from a detailed and up-to-date style guide. If you haven’t refreshed yours in a while—or if you don’t have one—this is a great project for the year-end holiday slowdown when you can’t get anyone to answer your emails anyway!

What is a style guide?

It’s a document that outlines the magazine’s “house style”—the preferences in punctuation, grammar, capitalization, word usage and more that editorial staff should follow. Using a style guide improves consistency, saves everyone time and supports your publication’s unique identity and feel. (Note that a style guide isn’t the same thing as writer’s guidelines, which offer broader direction to contributors pitching stories—see EnRoute’s example.)

What makes a good style guide?

I think style guides should offer enough direction without trying to cover everything. The definition of “enough” depends on your magazine; I’ve seen style guides as short as two pages, and some thick enough to require a binder. If you’re building your style guide from scratch, start with the basics that come up frequently, such as punctuation, numbers, capitalization, abbreviations, symbols and place names.

I don’t know anything about this stuff.

You don’t need to invent your own style—look at commonly used reference books such as Canadian Press Stylebook, Canadian Press Caps and Spelling, The Globe and Mail Style Book, Editing Canadian English, The Chicago Manual of Style and, for web stuff, The Yahoo! Style Guide. You could simply adopt one of the first three as your style guide, but you’ll still need to make some decisions, and you’ll want to make at least a few exceptions. Your magazine might even ban certain words and phrases because they’re overused, outdated or offensive—or just because the editor-in-chief can’t stand them. (See examples of words unwelcome at The Washington Post, New York Magazine and

What’s a lexicon?

Many magazines keep a list of words, on its own or as part of a style guide, to save editors the time and trouble of looking them up—or because the words aren’t in the dictionary. This unique vocabulary could include specialty lingo, brand names and celebrities’ names, for example. I love lexicons (yep, I’m a geek) because they’re like a snapshot of a magazine’s essence—a taste of what makes it special.

Where can I find examples of style guides and lexicons?

Here are just a few: The Economist, Faith Today, Film Matters, National Geographic, Carleton University and The Guardian. The ones from Vice and Buzzfeed are even kind of fun to read. You can also find specialized style guides, like the one from the Council of Science Editors. Check out, and Smashing Magazine for more thoughts on style guides.


Do you have thoughts on magazine style guides?


Research Cheat Sheet: Tips From a Librarian

Photo of Mimi SzetoThis week, we’re lucky to have a guest post by Mimi Szeto, who’s both a journalist and a librarian (so, basically, she’s a research ninja). Check out Mimi’s tips for smarter online searching and free resources.  

Online research is easy or daunting depending on how well you can weave through all the information out there on the web. Here are a few librarian-approved sources and easy-to-do tricks—most of which you can try at home in your pajamas—to save time while digging deep into the virtual stacks.

1. Find out what you have access to

Though not often publicized, and sometimes veiled as “e-resources” or “digital collections,” libraries have growing selections of online goodies that you can access with your library card. Download magazines you want to pitch to, research new story angles and find niche publications for your work by signing up for a Zinio account through your public library (for example, the Toronto Public Library). You get free, unlimited access to the current digital editions of hundreds of magazines, and in some cases, back issues. Need to reference works by Alice Munro or Malcolm Gladwell? Download their ebooks through OverDrive 

2. Tap into databases, high-quality web resources and guides

Maybe your first instinct was to Google your topic. Now you have to back up your research with factual information from authoritative sources. Try searching paid databases and web portals via your library for newspaper articles, journals, consumer reports, statistics, encyclopedias and more. If you’re new to a subject, guides are one of the best starting points—search for “guides to [topic].”

3. Access hard-to-get (for free) research

Science, health and medical journals usually aren’t freely available to the public. Nonetheless, it’s worth a shot to search Google Scholar for full-text articles. If you study or teach at a university, there’s a good chance you have an all-access pass via the library website to subject-specific databases containing journal articles, abstracts and other types of documents. Start with the topic and then dive into the suggested resources to gather what you need.

4. Use social media as a research tool

Even if Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn aren’t your thing, they’re a gold mine when it comes to discovering new businesses and interview sources, and listening in on both expert and non-expert commentary. One neat trick you can do on Facebook is pull up posts, discussions and any other mentions of a particular topic by adding a hashtag to your search term. For instance, typing “#snow” into the search box will bring up public posts and comments from people on your friends list that mention snow. This is particularly useful for newsworthy events.

5. Back up documents you may need later

Web links break all the time. Content is taken down or revised. In some cases, entire websites disappear. Documenting webpages for research purposes is as easy as clicking File>Print>Save as PDF, if you’re using a Mac, or taking a screenshot. Skitch is a free app for Macs, Windows and mobile devices that allows you to annotate screenshots, maps and pictures. Do a web search for screenshot apps and plug-ins that create full-page records, and try a few out to find one that suits your needs. (Worried about copyright infringement? Read about fair dealing in the Copyright Act. In Canada, research, private study, criticism and news reporting are exceptions to copyright infringement.)

Mimi Szeto (@mimiszeto) is a freelance researcher and editor from Toronto who holds a Master of Information Studies degree in Library and Information Science. Formerly an online listings editor at St. Joseph Media for and, she has coordinated fact-checking projects for and worked in various public, academic and non-traditional libraries in the city. 

Q&A: James McCarten on the new Canadian Press Stylebook

JFM01The 17th edition of The Canadian Press Stylebook, a key reference book for Canadian journalists and students since its debut in 1940, came out a few weeks ago. I chatted with James McCarten, stylebook editor and CP’s Ottawa news editor, about the changes in this edition.



The previous stylebook came out in 2010. What’s new in this edition?

The main centrepiece of the new edition is the social media policy. It’s not the first time we’ve had something on the books, as it were, to help and inform people who work for CP as to how to manage their activity on social media in the context of the news agency and in the context of their daily journalism. But it’s an area that evolves very, very quickly. It wasn’t in the book in a comprehensive way, just mentioned as a great way to gather material, crowdsource grassroots opinion and so forth. [The new policy] coincided with the hiring of Andrew Lundy, our new director of digital. Over several months, we had a committee of reporters and other CP employees discuss what kind of model we’d have and how it should be framed. They were passionate discussions, because people feel quite strongly about social media and what they can do with it. We forged this policy to guide people in how it can be used as a tool, and the importance of using it as a tool both for information gathering and disseminating the work we do, and the pitfalls, the areas where you can get into trouble. Because it was so new, people tended to forget the long-existing policies of objectivity, fairness, accuracy, all the tenets of journalism, apply there too. It is a platform, a place where we’re engaged in discussions and sometimes arguments, and there’s a lot of back and forth. We wanted to ensure we were putting our best face forward representing the company when they were involved in these talks. Also, privacy issues come into play, and accuracy is fundamental. If you’re representing the company on Twitter or Facebook or anywhere else, you have to be in that framework of being a journalist first. … The policy itself is several pages along, with a great amount of detail, and I wanted a concise, condensed version to go in the book.

Stylebook cover 17

What other updates did you make?

Mostly tweaks, which is a fairly typical way to go. It’s the first edition of the stylebook I was involved in as an editor. We’re saving up more changes for down the road. We have a significant anniversary coming up, CP’s 100th anniversary in 2017, and I’m hoping we’ll mark that with comprehensive changes from cover to cover in the next five years or so.

Changes to the online edition happen between books. Does this book crystallize those changes?

It’s always a bit of crystallizing. It wasn’t an overhaul, but filling in a few spots where we don’t have anything in the book and we probably should. Suicide is a good example. It ended up in the section on sensitive subjects, and it will likely be expanded on in later editions. We were silent on that issue until now, and I felt we needed some acknowledgement that this is an area where you need to take your time, think carefully about what you’re doing and the impact it will have on other people, because it is a sensitive subject. Traditionally, in media, it was a verboten subject – the attitude still exists in many newsrooms that if it involves a suicide, you set it side, it’s not something you want to talk about. But that attitude has changed dramatically in recent years, dealing with prominent stories that put suicide at the forefront – First Nations are an example, and cyberbullying and teenage suicide are major issues. And it felt wrong to turn a blind eye to an issue that was dominating so much of the discussion in the national media on a daily basis. So this is us dipping our toe in the water a little bit. … There are lots of experts out there, with different opinions and perspectives on how to approach it. Get advice. Don’t just blunder through a story or dismiss a story out of hand because it touches on this issue. There is very prescriptive advice. If you go to certain mental health agencies or organizations, they often have tips for media, sometimes very heavy-handed, recommending certain language over others, putting certain facts in. We don’t want to go there, we just want to make sure it’s on people’s radar.

There’s new content on dealing with government and corporate officials.

As you know, I’m based in Ottawa now, and it’s been a prominent issue for us up here, very often dealing with government officials or other media relations folks who are less than forthcoming. This is a government that’s made it very clear that it takes a certain approach to the media, and we wanted to give advice on how best to handle situations in which someone who may in fact be being paid to deal with the media isn’t returning calls, or they’re demanding to see questions ahead of time, or refusing to do phone interviews. These are all things we encounter on a regular basis, and we wanted to provides some guidance on that, so that’s in there.

What was updated in the “unnamed sources” section?

It’s quite common among major media outlets, they now have a requirement that if you’re going to quote an anonymous source, you have to explain why, you have to cite the very specific reason why you’re choosing to grant anonymity to a particular person – for example, it’s someone who’s not authorized to speak to the media, or who doesn’t have permission to release certain details, or who’s fearing for their safety. We’re trying to give the reader as much guidance as possible as to why this person has a good reason for choosing not to use their name. The other thing it does, it forces the reporter to take a second look at why it is. There’s a tendency, very much in this day and age, to go to that default position. If somebody doesn’t want their name used because they don’t want to get in trouble, that’s not good enough. Hopefully this policy will get reporters to take a second look…and both parties are forced to think about it, and it discourages the use, the wanton use, of anonymous sources, but still permits it when necessary. There are definitely circumstances where it’s in the public interest for a person to be able to speak out without fear of reprisal. We’ve always tried to find the middle ground and provide flexibility. That section on anonymous sources, there’s a solid two pages now.

How much do controversial news stories inform or drive updates to the stylebook?

It certainly helps to put it on the front burner. When the things we’re dealing with are prominent, it puts them on my radar that much more quickly. An issue like suicide – Rehtaeh Parsons and all the other examples we’ve been wrestling with in recent months – that will bring the issue to my attention more quickly. So I’d say it’s a major driver. The book is a living thing, and we’re trying to keep it up to date and current.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

There’s a section on using online images. A good example is the bus crash in Ottawa. It doesn’t take long for tribute pages and personal Facebook pages to acknowledge a tragedy or event. We felt we weren’t providing staff enough direct guidance on the use of pictures posted online. Sometimes there’s an attitude that if it’s online, it’s fair game, but that’s not always the case and we wanted to give more guidance.

There’s a part about obscenity. We made the change to the online stylebook years ago, around 2010, but this is the first print edition to reflect that. We needed to give ourselves more flexibility. We serve a multitude of different clients with different expectations and needs. Mainstream media clients, newspapers and the like … if there’s obscenity in the news report and it’s relevant and part of the news, oftentimes you’ll see that in print. But when you start to get into online… we’re serving a lot of corporate clients that have their own attitude towards these things. Maybe they have a family-oriented site. They tend to have a higher bar as to whether obscenity and profanity is permissible. So we’ve had to evolve our approach and provide multiple streams. Sometimes we’ll provide a story edited from that higher bar. And it became a very complicated issue, not easy to navigate. And the advent of the Internet has pushed a lot of language into the mainstream that traditionally wouldn’t be there. When Fucked Up won the Polaris Music Prize, we had an issue there. I think at one point we mentioned them as “a band whose name couldn’t be published in a family newspaper.” But at a certain point, you’re providing a disservice – we can’t name the band that won the Polaris Prize! It gets difficult. So our traditional approach, historically, we didn’t use devices, for example, asterisks instead of certain letters. We don’t specifically recommend that approach, but we’ve amended the policy that we no longer have a prohibition on it. If anything, the revisions in the policy have broadened it to let us use different strategies. And we feel that’s a reflection of what the media world at large needs to do now.

This interview has been edited for length. Images courtesy of James McCarten.

WIN A COPY! James is giving away two copies of The Canadian Press Stylebook. To enter, send an email to jaclynlaw[at]gmail[dot]com with CP STYLEBOOK in the subject line. Please include your mailing address. Deadline for entries is Sunday, Nov. 10. 

To order copies of the book, visit the Canadian Press website.

Read the Editfish Q&A with James McCarten about the 20th edition of The Canadian Press Caps and Spelling Guide.


Take-away tips for freelancers

Conference name badges
My brain’s still buzzing with the good advice I picked up last month at MagNet 2012 and the Editors’ Association of Canada (EAC) conference in Ottawa. Here are five tips that stood out.

Pitch stories to custom publications. I already work with custom pubs, but “The Lucrative World of Custom-Fit Publications” at MagNet showed me that there’s a lot more opportunity here than most freelancers realize. Panellists Arjun Basu, Joseph Barbieri and Brian Borzykowski say that few writers approach custom publishers, although pitching and writing for custom is very similar to working with consumer mags—and it pays as well or better. To find markets, start by checking out the Custom Content Council.

Get creative with display copy. Jim Sutherland’s MagNet session “Display School: Bringing Readers to the Text” inspired me to be more adventurous with heds and deks. Instead of a hed with a straight-up approach, would a question, quote or declaration work? How about a sentence or even a list? And don’t neglect your deks; Jim pointed out that they’re an “astonishingly versatile and effective means of communication,” not just filler between heds and body copy. Another great tip: “Wit is welcome even when humour is out of place.”

Target hungrier markets. Ed Gandia’s “How to Land More and Better Clients in a Crowded Global Market” was one of the most popular MagNet sessions for writers. Sage advice: Consider where budgets are shifting—every project in an organization is either “urgent,” “important” or “nice to have,” and when finances are tight, it’s the first two categories (usually projects that generate revenue or profits) that get the green light. Focus your marketing efforts on prospects that are well positioned with “urgent” and “important” products, services or information. Gandia is also offering a free online course for freelancers.

Collaborate on a corporate writing guide. Here’s a project that corporate writers and editors can pitch to steady clients: developing a guide to help employees keep communications consistent, clear and concise. Rhonda Helman, editor at Farm Credit Canada, made an excellent presentation about corporate writing guides at the EAC conference. My four favourite tips: get the support of managers by understanding what they prefer and why; ensure that the guide is a collaborative effort and that everyone involved stands to benefit; keep in mind that the guide is a work in progress; and never underestimate the power of your expertise.

Spruce up your speeches. I enjoyed “Go From Ho-Hum to Humdinger,” a presentation by speechwriter and trainer Wendy Cherwinski of Echelon Communications, at the EAC conference. She offered several practical tips, such as: write the way people talk (including contractions, idioms and sentence fragments); use highlighters to check your use of pronouns, verbs, transitions, etc.; 100 words is about one minute of speaking time; and take advantage of tools such as the Flesch Reading Ease Scale to measure readability. For more tips on speechwriting, sign up for Cherwinski’s free e-newsletter, Pen & Podium, by emailing

Tech tools for easier editing

I spend way too much time flipping through reference books, so I’m glad that the most popular ones for Canadian editors have all gone digital. Throw in a desk setup that’s conducive to multitasking, and my workdays suddenly seem a little bit shorter.

Canadian Oxford Dictionary

The Canadian Oxford, 2nd ed., is the dictionary of choice for pretty much every publication I’ve worked with, and it’s the one I recommend to clients who haven’t picked one. It also weighs six pounds and is as bulky as a phone book (remember those?), which matters when you’re dragging it to clients’ offices for copy editing gigs. But guess what? There’s an iPhone app. It’s $29.99, but the portability and search function are worth it. The text is nice and crisp, and it can be enlarged – great for tired eyes – and you can tap words in definitions to find out their meaning.

The Chicago Manual of Style Online

Recently I discovered that my copy of Chicago, the 14th edition, came out in 1993 – making it a year older than Justin Bieber. It’s also a decade older than the 15th edition, which I skipped because I figured that grammar and punctuation couldn’t have changed very much. But Chicago has evolved with the times, and so should we. The 16th edition came out in 2010, and an editor I work with recommended the online version. In the past, I hesitated at the annual $30 US fee (a print copy is about $45), but here’s why I’ve signed up for the free 30-day trial and why I’m going to subscribe: I’ve never liked navigating the book, and the online manual’s fully searchable; I can use it anywhere via my iPhone; it’ll always be up to date; and users have access to the Q&A archives, a discussion forum and tools to personalize the guide. Attention, managing editors: Group subscriptions are available.

Canadian Press Stylebook

Rounding out the trinity, there’s an online version of this reference book too, for $4 per month, or $6.25 if you want access to Caps and Spelling. (Licences are available for multiple users.) The Stylebook is on its 16th edition (released in 2010), with expanded chapters on writing for and about the Internet, writing and editing for broadcast, and PR. I’ll probably pick up the print editions, though; I think they’re updated often enough (every two years), and they’re a more economical – though not searchable – option.

photo of dual-monitor workstation

An extra monitor, keyboard and mouse make me more productive...and so do mochaccinos.

Dual monitors

For my first three years as a full-time freelancer, I worked on my 13-inch laptop, chosen for its portable size – I took it to coffee shops for a change of scenery. When my IT guy (my husband) suggested I get a 20-inch monitor, keyboard and mouse and use them together with my laptop, I refused, saying, “I don’t need them!” He convinced me to try it, and now I’d rather stay at my desk than go to Starbucks. The screens are oriented to behave like one monitor – I can drag my mouse across both in one swipe – and the extra space saves time and boosts productivity. It’s just so convenient, for example, to have a PDF or webpage open on one screen while I type notes into a Word document on the other…plus the setup makes me feel like an operator in The Matrix. (The laptop is nicely angled thanks to a stand.) Now I’ve got a bad case of size envy: Last week, another editor told me she has a 15-inch laptop next to a 26-inch monitor.

What online resources, apps and tech tools are making your editing life easier?