Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Publication Consistency & Style Sheets

(Or Schweig Puts on His Stodgy Editor’s Hat)

Those who’ve worked with me as an editor way back during my time running West End Games’ Official Star Wars Adventure Journal and working on the Star Wars roleplaying game line know I’m a stickler for editorial detail. For many regular contributors (and those I hoped to cultivate to become regular contributors and later authors on roleplaying game supplements) I did not view my editor’s duties as simply correcting their work, but helping them improve their writing to more closely reflect what West End and ultimately Lucasfilm expected.

I’m not a huge fan of reality TV shows, especially those with lots of screaming; but if I’ve learned one thing from my few viewings of reality shows featuring the frequently cursing celebrity British chef Gordon Ramsay it’s that consistency counts…and in many cases it seems paramount to providing quality service at least in the restaurant setting if not in many other professions.

Consistency at all levels, both in content and style from the publishing perspective, helps ensure quality product time and again. It meets the general expectations of the broad readership and helps clearly communicate ideas in the common “code” of a consistent language, style, and grammar.

Look at writings from America’s earliest days and you’ll find “literate” people writing with inconsistent spelling and usage, mostly reflecting the phonetic spoken language than a written one, what today we’d see as a near-unintelligible mess. For instance, that last sentence might look like this:
Luk at ritns from Merkas erlyst daze and yul find peepl ritn w. nconsistant speling and usag mostlee flectn the fonetyk spokn langwage then a rittn 1.
They weren’t even consistent within the same document with the same words. It was a kind of a make-it-up-as-you-go process that didn’t always clearly impart the intended message to readers. This is why we have grammar and style within a language; it helps make sure everyone, writers and readers, use the same “code book” of language so we all understand our communication.

Code Book/Style Guide

I learned an awful lot about writing and publishing during three years at my first job out of college: reporting and later editing for The Ridgefield Press, the venerable, weekly newspaper in my hometown of Ridgefield, CT. Not that my four years at an extremely nice liberal arts college in central New York state for a degree in creative writing didn’t help; but the Press gave me a crash course in the practicalities of writing and publishing, with many hard-learned lessons that still influence me today.

The indomitable Executive Editor Jack Sanders -- who still serves as editorial sensei for the Press and its sibling newspapers under the banner of Hersam Acorn Newspapers -- whipped his reporters into shape with constant critiques, reminders, even entire issues of the newspaper “redlined” in red marker noting comments, questions, and errors (all in a style sometimes reminiscent of Gregory Peck’s portrayal of Brigadier General Frank Savage in Twelve O'Clock High). He continually demanded editorial excellence of everyone, from fledgling reporters to seasoned editors.

Upon embarking on the rocky road of reporting for the Ridgefield Press and its associated newspapers, each reporter received a loose-leaf binder containing the Acorn Press style guide. I still have my copy, cherished on the shelf with a host of other, more infamous style manuals and quite possibly more worn with love, devotion, and frequent re-reading than any others (though Strunk & White’s Elements of Style comes in a close second). Although it’s focused on writing for a hometown weekly newspaper in the early 1990s, much of its content remains relevant today, even if only in examining the minutia of style and grammar concerns current writers should still address. It taught me that, no matter how much a publication or publisher claimed it adhered to the conventions of one “official” style guide or another, each one has so many exceptions that it really needs its own to best communicate its specialized expectations to authors.

The Acorn Press style guide and my practical education at The Ridgefield Press led me to write a comprehensive style guide at my next job as editor of The Official Star Wars Adventure Journal at West End Games, a quarterly publication supporting the company’s Star Wars Roleplaying Game with original game-related fiction and source material. I was hired to start the publication from scratch, using established game authors, cultivating new “up-and-coming” writers, and courting best-selling name authors. At the time, West End’s editorial department had, at best, a sketchy style policy based on submission guidelines and a few pages of notes. I have an extremely vague pseudo-memory (or was it a dream?) that some kind of hodge-podge Star Wars Roleplaying Game writers guidelines existed before, most likely as a dot-matrix-printed, faint photocopy of miscellaneous things we expected writers to understand. If it existed, it was hardly comprehensive and didn’t reflect the seriousness with which the editorial staff and Lucasfilm’s approvals personnel viewed material in editing.

In editing a periodical that required contributions from numerous authors, I needed a more standardized, comprehensive guide to what we expected substantively in terms of content and approach as well as in grammar and style. I viewed a Star Wars RPG and Adventure Journal style guide as a manual covering all aspects of publishing such material through West End Games. In consultation with the Star Wars line editor at the time as well as production management, we made sure it included a wide array of useful information, much of which was influence by what was covered in my revered Acorn Press style guide:
  • An outline of the submission process, including contracts and assignments of copyright, what we expected of writers as professionals, information about payments, and writing diagram and illustration suggestions.
  • A guide to what authors should and shouldn’t do in the Star Wars universe at the time, with notes on working within existing continuity.
  • Guidelines on writing adventures, source material, and game-related fiction (the “game-related” designation an essential part to avoid infringing on other Lucasfilm licensees’ rights to publish fiction).
  • Style and grammar guidelines on punctuation, capitalization, italics and bold, and other miscellanea as reflected in West End publications.
  • A master reference spelling list noting many proper names from the Star Wars universe.
  • Style definitions addressing individual issues, from common grammar problems to Star Wars-specific matters (similar to sections in Strunk & White’s Elements of Style).
  • A master stat format guide for almost every form of stat used in the game, in both long and short forms.
Version 2.0, August 1994 of the Star Wars Style Guide I drafted was almost 60 pages long. Every author who had a project accepted for development got a copy, and some were sent to prospective authors. I’m sure some fellow editors thought the effort was a waste of time, paper, and postage, but it established a common foundation on which everyone could work. (I find it ironic that some who play and write game rules don’t necessarily like following other rules, like those for using style and grammar in a publication.) It also served as a “rulebook” of sorts to help ensure what came in from authors was closer to what we (and Lucasfilm) expected in terms of content and quality, making editor’s jobs slightly easier so they could focus on other important issues.

In paging through my lone surviving copy of the style guide, I’m struck by some of the more interesting tidbits we included, some tailored to game writing, others to the Star Wars universe:
  • A laborious but informative step-by-step walkthrough of the submission procedure, from the proposal (with all the required forms), review, first and final drafts, and payment, with notes on when to expect to hear from editors at each stage.
  • Tips for writing in the Star Wars universe like “minimize real-world references,” “no superlatives or absolutes” (like “all customs inspectors in the galaxy will do this”), and “use the major players sparingly.”
  • “Avoid the future tense” in writing adventures (something I still notice in some scenarios today).
  • “A blaster has a ‘sight,’ not a ‘site.’”
  • “In Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game we have gamemaster characters, not NPCs or non-player characters.”
  • “Wookiee is spelled with two E’s at the end” (thanks to this I still do a double-take writing “cookie” with only one E).
Bear in mind the document was customized for both the Star Wars license and roleplaying game materials; however, it represents a comprehensive guide to writing in the gaming profession, from editorial expectations to basic writer information, all with an eye to producing quality product. Some folks might balk at all these rules, suggestions, and details, but they offered a pretty comprehensive idea of the expectations West End editors and Lucasfilm approvals personnel had for writers. Following the style guide helped editors prepare manuscripts for approval and publication; those who made life easier for editors were more apt to get future work.

Lack of Style in the Internet Age

I’m sometimes discouraged by the lack of attention to consistency in style and grammar today, whether in personal communication, official correspondence, or published material (particularly internet content).

I’ve had a few day jobs in the publishing field since leaving West End Games after it declared bankruptcy in 1998, and most of them had their own versions of style guides -- some formal, some sketchy -- for their publications.

In my years in the publishing field I’ve referenced the monumental Chicago Manual of Style and AP Stylebook; many editors used them more as general suggestions than rules, and then almost arbitrarily so (driving many writers and editors somewhat insane). I recall one senior editor, when asked to clarify a style issue after consulting an established guide, simply shrugged his shoulders and uttered the non-committal “It’s just a judgment call.”

These days it doesn’t seem to matter. Style guides, from longstanding cornerstones of the publishing industry to customized rules for individual publishers, have become dinosaurs in this ever-changing Internet Age where people e-mail, text, blog, and otherwise communicate using the written word so casually that anagrams like OMG and AFAIK, once occasional code, now seem like acceptable grammatical concepts. The internet has blurred the line between professional writing and casual communication; perhaps the English language is rebounding back toward the days when everyone spelled words the way they liked without regard to whether they’re understood.

Okay, time to take off my stodgy old editor’s hat and rejoin the rest of the 21st Century….