Student guest post: How to build a better in-house style guide

Students in MEJO 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the sixth of those posts. Alison Krug is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill. She is the managing editor and copy editor of Southern Neighbor magazine and the newsroom director and former copy chief at The Daily Tar Heel.

Last fall, I embarked on an independent study focusing on the construction of style guides. For my final project, I spent the semester rebuilding the in-house style guides for The Daily Tar Heel and Southern Neighbor magazine.

The DTH is an independent, student-run paper at UNC-Chapel Hill that publishes in print four days a week and online every day. Southern Neighbor is an independent, student-run monthly magazine that focuses on business, arts and education around Orange County, North Carolina. Both operate under DTH Media Corp.

Both publications had existing guides that were in disarray, so I conducted interviews with copy editors at publications including The Technician (N.C. State University’s student paper), BuzzFeed and the Washington Post to get an idea of what makes an effective style guide.

By the end of the semester, I had two fresh in-house style guides.

Here’s what I learned are the steps you need to take when constructing an in-house style guide:

1. Read the (news)room.

Before I touched a single style entry, I conducted a few informal interviews with DTH editors and staffers to find out what difficulties they had with the stylebook. Based on these interviews and my experience as copy chief, I could assess which aspects of the stylebook were the most urgent and crucial to fix.

I discovered that the DTH staff wanted a new way to host the stylebook (the Google Doc it lived on was a mess) that was easy to share with staffers and didn’t involve logging in to anything.

It sounds simple, but after logging 80 pages of style entries for the DTH guide, I wouldn’t want to distribute it to the newsroom only to then find out I had to make some huge structural or content change to suit the staff’s needs.

2. Find an in-house balance.

The old DTH and Southern Neighbor style guides were gummed up with sections reiterating AP style rules over and over again. Both Southern Neighbor and the DTH use AP style and then use in-house guides to make additions to or overwrite the AP.

I realized about halfway through my construction of the new guides that I was not being consistent in my decisions to scrap or keep an AP style entry. I decided that because each DTH desk has an AP stylebook account, I wouldn’t copy AP entries unless they were a style point the newsroom often struggled with.

3. Find your structure.

The best advice I have for figuring out formatting is to cherry-pick from existing guides.

For the DTH and Southern Neighbor, I based my format heavily off of the 2008 DTH style guide. I began with a mission statement (the DTH prides itself to be a teaching paper, so the mission statement’s main purpose is to guide new copy desk staffers as they make editing choices), a quick rundown of AP basics, an A to Z of style points and then a collection of topic-specific mini style sheets (the 2008 DTH guide did something similar with mini style sheets, but I refined the format based on BuzzFeed’s meticulously organized guide).

Here are some helpful questions to ask yourself when deciding on structure:

Who will be using the guide?

For the DTH, it would be a newsroom of over 200, including about 30 copy editors — many who would be brand new to journalism. This led me to make sure my AP basics section and how-to-copy-edit mission statement in the most visible spot on the first page. For Southern Neighbor, there’s often just one copy chief who is very familiar with the ins and outs of the publication, so a how-to-edit guide was not as crucial to prominently display.

What medium will the final guide be in?

Will it be printed? A Word file? I knew both guides I was creating would have an online home, so I put emphasis on making sure subheads for sections and individual entries could be found through a cmd+f search for keywords.

Where can I look for inspiration?

I found the guides of news organizations that shared the same news values or had the same copy desk difficulties to be the most helpful. If you’re writing an in-house guide for a college publication, get in contact with another college copy editor. You’ll probably find you’re facing similar problems, and it’s fun to talk to someone who works the same horrific hours as you.

4. Get input.

My preferred method of getting feedback was emailing iterations of the guides out to editors and begging for their input. A Google Form or JotForm might work better for you.

5. Be ready to be flexible.

All of my points listed above could be distilled to one takeaway: Do the groundwork beforehand so you don’t have to make major changes once you’re 50 pages into your guide.

But it’s a copy desk: Things happen. It’s good to have a plan to anticipate changes to the guide.

The N.C. State University student newspaper meets once a year to discuss style changes. A style summit like this might work for college papers and smaller newsrooms (like the DTH), while a larger operation or a publication where contributors don’t come in to an office (like Southern Neighbor) might benefit from a Google form or some other online submission form paired with a regular email on style updates from the copy desk.

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