Make a house style checklist to ensure consistency

How to create stylish and consistent documents every time

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What difference does applying a consistent style for titles, spelling and layout make to your document? For a start, it looks professional. Readers will find a well laid-out document easy to navigate. Their attention won’t be drawn away from the content of the writing by misspelled words or dodgy punctuation. In the publishing world a copy-editor or proofreader is often supplied with a style sheet that sets out the ‘house style’ to be followed when working on a text. This ensures that all documents are consistent in terms of issues such as spelling, comma use, capitalisation or hyphenation.

Why develop a house style?

Many of my clients are students, academics or from the business world. Some have a clear idea of their style preferences for the text, or are constrained by university or journal publication guidelines, others leave choices of style to me. If you want your document to have a particular layout or design, use a specific style or language, then it’s worth spending a bit of time thinking about the following issues and drawing up your own style sheet.

Language and references

BritEng or AmEn – the choice is yours. I’m happy to proofread to either British English or American English spelling. British English spelling is my default. One issue that often crops up is the question of -ize or -ise spelling. Generally, British English  favours the latter, although in certain cases -ize spellings are just as acceptable and are preferred by the OED. With academic work I’ll usually ask if a specific reference style has been used. I’ve written several blog posts about academic referencing, in particular my own personal speciality, the legal writing OSCOLA style. If there is no particular preference then I tend to use Harvard style for in-text citations in non-legal writing.

Punctuation

How many spaces after a full stop? In the past, when documents were produced on typewriters (I remember those days of carbon paper and Tippex) the convention was to leave two spaces after a full stop. This is known as English Spacing and dates back to the era of typesetting before computerisation. Nowadays, modern fonts are designed for single spacing and this is the convention that virtually everyone follows.

Other tricky areas are hyphenation. Generally, I will follow the advice in the Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors. There is also a good simple plain English guide here. The question of the Oxford or serial comma is a bit like Marmite – you either love it or hate it. I have to admit being a recent convert as my old-school education trained me to avoid it like the plague.

Writing numbers

As a general rule, in non-scientific texts numbers up to and including ten are written in words and 11 and above are written in numbers. If a number is at the start of a sentence it is written out in full, in words. Interestingly, the representation of the decimal mark or point is different in Europe to the UK and the US. In Europe the decimal mark or point is represented by a comma, whereas in British or American English writing the decimal point is represented by a full stop or point.

Fonts and format

The choice of font is a matter for the author. I’ll only change the font of a manuscript where there is inconsistency. Perhaps a few words have been added to a section in a different font or size, as a writer this is easy to overlook. Another aspect to check is the consistency of layout – indented paragraphs, line spacing and the like. A nicely formatted document looks professional and is easier to read. The key with imposing a style is consistency. So, if I can see that a writer has written ‘organisation’ throughout the majority of the work, but a couple of ‘organizations’ have crept in I will edit accordingly.

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