Why are style guides so hard to find?

Adrian Weckler recently published the Computers In Business style guide – or at least an abridged version of it.

This is a priceless resource for any journalist looking to write for Adrian – and while it may not apply entirely to the rest of the Sunday Business Post it is also useful for those writing for others there too.

Quite simply, anything a freelancer can do to make their copy more publication-suitable will make them more attractive as a writer overall. The less work you are for the editors and sub-editors the more likely you are to get commissioned again (assuming your pitch is decent in the first place, of course).

Some of the advice is common sense journalism – keep your sentences short, avoid the American spelling, refer to a company as the singular – but some are title-specific. I know I committed a few of the sins in the last piece I wrote for the SBP but my defence (for some of them at least) is that they are habits I’ve acquired while following B&F‘s style… not that that’s any comfort to the poor soul who has to fix my errors.

The whole thing got me thinking – why don’t all newspapers have their style guides available online?

The benefit to them if they did this would be immeasurable.

Every publication has its own way of doing things and it’s easy for a journalist to get it wrong if they don’t have clear guidelines laid out in front of them. This is especially true for a freelancer who writes a lot for one publication and so tends to write that way for all without thinking.

Even if a journalist carefully studies the publication in question before writing they are also bound to miss certain things that they are supposed to be doing – or perhaps even certain formatting tendencies that aren’t apparent in the final product.

(For example, The Sunday Business Post uses two back-quote marks to open a quote and two single apostrophes to close it as opposed to regular quotation marks. I’m not sure why – I assume it’s a formatting issue – but it’s not something you’d know unless you’re told and it’s easy to forget if you don’t write for them regularly.)

The end result can be a piece that – while technically and journalistically fine – is in need of serious tweaking before it can go forward to be laid-out.

Imagine having to trawl through a piece to add ‘Mr’ at every reference to an individual just because the writer didn’t know your publication gives titles where others don’t. Or having to de-capitalise job titles because the journalist didn’t know that that’s the way you do things.

Editors and subs have more than enough on their plates without having to do this kind of uninspiring donkey work and while nothing can ever eliminate it, making the style guide available to all would at least minimise it.

There’s nothing to lose in making the guide available online either – it’s not like publications are giving away the secret ingredient to their success or risking being copied by others by doing so.

From what I can see style guides aren’t even easy to get access to when you request them directly. Surely it would make sense if first-time freelancers were sent a copy of it when commissioned, if even to save the patience of the newspaper’s staff rather than the blushes of the journalist in question. Consider it a quick and nasty introduction to what’s expected of them when they file.

I can only imagine it’s an over-sight rather than intentional hiding of details on the newspaper’s part – here’s hoping Adrian has started something that others will follow very quickly.

Edited 17:30, 9th December 2009 to state Adrian’s style guide was for Computers In Business and not the Sunday Business Post as a whole (see comments below).