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 Your magazine might even ban certain words and phrases because they’re overused, outdated or offensive—or just because the editor-in-chief can’t stand them.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 SeriousEats.com.)

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 UXmag.com, Poynter.org and Smashing Magazine for more thoughts on style guides.

 

Do you have thoughts on magazine style guides?

 

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