Editors kick the word “style” around a lot. Like spoken Chinese, what we mean often depends on the context and inflection. We work diligently to create and maintain style in its various meanings, but like all rules, style sometimes improves when you break it.
Sometimes style refers to a publication’s “style guide.” Ours is based on the Associated Press stylebook, but customized for different clients. For instance, our clients tend to treat elements like titles, dates and state names in different ways:
- In Semper Fi, which we publish for the Marine Corps League, we use the two-letter USPS abbreviations for states, dates are written 10 November 1775, and ranks are used with names at all times.
- NFIB’s MyBusiness magazine follows AP for abbreviating names and dates, and titles are used only on a first reference.
- American Spirit uses its own approach to these and other elements.
- Our own suggested online style guide calls for using bullet points. Sentence fragments. In bold, and no puns (obviously this guy deserves a few bullets).
The point is that every publication has its own set of style rules for consistency in spelling, grammar, even the tense used in attributed quotations.
Then there are times when “style” refers to the overall voice — some call it sound or tone or feeling — of a publication. The style guide can have an effect on this:
For instance, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal use titles before names. So one reads about Mayor Michael Bloomberg on first reference, then Mr. Bloomberg thereafter. The tone is more formal, not so much deferential as polite. Quite different from, say, Rolling Stone.
This meaning of style can include sentence structure — long, short, quippy. If most of the articles in a magazine read alike, that’s a style decision. Newspapers and news magazines homogenize most of their bread-and-butter news items while allowing longer pieces, columns and some departments to have a different voice:
In its early years, Time Magazine originated a style that sounds faintly like Yoda of “Star Wars.” Wolcott Gibbs wrote this famous parody in The New Yorker in 1936: “Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind […] Where it all will end, knows God!”
Speaking of The New Yorker, its founding editor and longtime guiding light Harold Ross famously decreed, when asked about what we today would call his “audience:” “One thing I know, the magazine is not going to be written for the little old lady from Dubuque.”
Brendan Gills’ excellent memoir Here at the New Yorker describes how Ross looked for writers who could write in their own unique voices, and for editors who could polish their contributors’ rough stones into unique gems. As the best-written magazines still do, The New Yorker sought to impose quality, not sameness, on its pages.
That’s a big challenge for editors. We have to fight the urge to rephrase material in our own voice — there’s a cynical saying that no urge, not hunger, anger or desire, is greater than the urge to change someone’s copy. Writers — Thomas Wolfe for instance — may turn in a glorious mess of copy; it’s up to the editor to clean up the mess without ruining the glory.
So, to every editor who ever picked a nit — I know I have! — I say:
There are times when “ain’t” isn’t proper and occasions when there ain’t any other way to say it and be true to the story. How else to convey the pathos in the story of a little boy addressing Shoeless Joe Jackson during the Black Sox scandal: “Say it ain’t so, Joe!”?
There are times to use 1,000 as a number, and times that “batting a thousand” looks better.
And there are times to leave a broken rule unmended, as one of my favorite writers, Raymond Chandler explained in letter to Atlantic Monthly editor Edward Weeks, after being undone by a copy editor’s overzealous insistence on the rules of grammar:
“Would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split, and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of bar-room vernacular, that is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed but attentive.”