Writing and Editing with Style
Let's start with a question. In the headline above, why are the words "and" as well as "with" lowercase? You, in the back. That's correct, I'm employing what's called headline style for the heads. So in this case the article "and" as well as the preposition "with" are lowercase. I could have also correctly employed sentence-style capitalization, in which just the first word is capitalized. And how do I know how to employ such dazzling grammar voodoo, you ask? Simple. It's all laid out in the current edition of The Chicago Manual of Style.
Sure, you're a designer, but words nevertheless form an important part of your world. For example, your own site is your best shot at communicating why you're good at what you do. But what's the level of its text? Are you just guessing about the correct usage of English, whether in blog posts or in describing past projects or your services? If so, do errors in language usage damage trust on the part of potential clients? In communications with current clients, to what extent have you mastered the standard practices of written English, to be clear and avoid confusion? And when creating work using text supplied by clients, are you on top of the linguistic game to the extent that you can spot obvious errors and alert the perpetrators? It's significant that in a recent survey, designers included copywriting and blogging as two of the top skills to have outside of, but related to, graphic design.
Of course, if you were really competent, you could include copywriting, copyediting and proofreading among your current services, thereby not only generating new revenue but saving clients from costly and embarrassing errors. Sound farfetched? Perhaps, but there's no reason you shouldn't at least make an effort to be more professional about your use of English. At the heart of that lies a grasp of the basic principles that can ensure a consistency in your current writing. The payoff will be immediate, in that your words will take on a new authority.
Let's look at the first paragraph of this post. Why did I place the words "and" as well as "with" in quotes? Because according to Chicago, as The Chicago Manual of Style is called, words and letters used as words can be either italicized or enclosed in quotation marks. It's an example of where one gets to pick a standard practice and then of course stick to it. In the next sentence, headline style was italicized, because that's the suggested treatment given to a key term the first time it's employed. The idea is that you learn such rules, employ them until they're automatic and then you can crank out correctly-crafted text without even thinking about it.
If the 1,026 pages of Chicago were devoted exclusively to rules of grammar and usage, it would be handy enough. But the 16th edition, the most recent, represented a big leap forward, in that it finally added material related to writing and editing practices and workflows in the digital era. Sections related to electronic workflow, an electronic-editing checklist for editors and writers, electronic rights and fair use, and procedures for proofreading web-based and other electronic documents, in conjunction with the general material, all contribute to providing an overall sense of how to work with text confidently, whether for print or digital publication.
While I'm singing the virtues of Chicago, there are other style guides available that are geared to English usage in other countries or contexts. British english, for example, is significantly different. In some cases internal style guides are created that complement another guide. Here's one from the publications department of Northwestern University that supplements their use of Chicago. If you have responsibility for editing copy supplied by clients, you'll first need to establish what style guide to use and also be clear on any internal usages that you'll need to follow. But Chicago is typically the standard in North America, so you might as well master it.
The printed version of The Chicago Manual of Style, priced at $40, is massive, to the point where I get tired just holding it. If cost is an issue, it shouldn't be hard to find a used copy of an earlier edition, since the grammar and usage rules don't change much. Another alternative is to purchase a subscription to the online version, which will set you back $35 per year. The advantage to this, of course, is that you can access it from anywhere, at any time. A bonus is a members-only forum, which is helpful for resolving questions. Open to everyone is the almost-famous Q&A area, to which you're free to submit a question. I admit, you have to be really into grammar to enjoy reading these items, which are organized by category, but hey, you can always learn something. I'll end with one of my favorites:
Q. Is there a standard for replacing an expletive with special $%!# characters?
A. Although there isn't a steady demand for masked expletives in scholarly prose, this is weirdly one of our frequently asked questions. (I have to wonder who is reading the Q&A--and what they are writing.) The symbols are fine for cartoons and e-mail messages, where you may arrange them in whatever order pleases you. In formal prose, however, we find that a 2-em dash makes a d——d fine replacement device.
Now that's what I call f——g awesome grammar advice.