Day of Meeting:  July 08, 2013

Moderator: Andrea Ptak
Meeting Facilitator: Kyra Freestar


Tina Loucks-Jaret, on technical editing style

Tina loves words about science. As a freelance technical editor and writer who specializes in environmental documentation, she has the special privilege of learning new things with each new project. She primarily provides services to government agencies and consulting firms, but also works with individual authors in many fields. She is the sole proprietor of Petals to Protons Technical Writing and Editing.

Dawn McCarra Basson editing style for nonprofits

Dawn McCarra Bass is a veteran editor and content strategist. After an early start wrangling style for commercial publishers and websites, she had the privilege of managing the house style sheet for medical journals at the University of Chicago Press. Currently employed at PATH, an international nonprofit, she developed the organization’s first formal style guide—establishing principles that flex gracefully from Seattle to Nairobi and from marketing to the malaria vaccine.

Giselle Smith, on magazine editing style

In more than 25 years as a working editor, Giselle Smith has created or revised (and enforced) style guides for magazines, guidebooks, online publications, and a variety of clients. A former magazine editor (Seattle Homes & Lifestyles, Seattle Magazine, and Alaska Airlines Magazine) and UW Extension writing and editing instructor, she is currently managing editor for Apex Learning, a digital curriculum company based in Seattle.

Bill Thorness, on corporate editing style

Bill was an editor in the business press for a decade, and in non-profit communications for another six years before becoming a freelance writer and editor with corporate clients, which he’s done for the last decade. He’s seen a lot of communications without consistent style, and worked with many great communicators who were sticklers about style. Along with his corporate work, Bill writes articles for regional publications, has written three books, and teaches in the UW’s Certificate in Editing program.

**See end of document for panelist contact information.


Q: Which formal style guide do you use as a base?

Tina: In the fields of environment and engineering, many entities have their own style guides (e.g., the National Marine Fisheries Service). Consulting firms may have their own, many of which are based on CMS. The Handbook of Technical Writing is a standard for engineering and tech writing. Of course, I also use the internet. And sometimes one just works with individuals to create a relevant style guide.

Dawn: Mostly I use CMS, which I find is more like a language than other style guides. Because of its complexity, it helps teach style as a set of principles—rather than just rules. That means you can extrapolate to situations that aren’t covered by the manual and have a deeper sense of which rules are essential to the style and which can be broken.

Giselle: For magazine editing, the standard style guide is Associated Press (AP). But it seems I’m always using other style guides as well.

Bill: I use AP for non-technical business writing; recently I’ve been using the Yahoo! Style Guide. Many people are already familiar with AP style since they’ve all read newspapers and magazines. AP is not particularly helpful for punctuation issues, however. After AP, CMS is the guide I use most.

Q: When and why do you begin the process of establishing a house style guide for your clients?

Tina: Sometimes the style guide is already in process. Then you look for which terms are used by each author; if there are multiple contributing authors for a book or journal, consistency is key.

Dawn: Sometimes you don’t have enough pages or words in a particular document to build a guide. At some point, you reach a critical mass—in volume of pages, diversity of materials, or even number of authors. You pay attention to the look and feel of the text–sometimes it can take awhile to develop a voice.

Giselle: For monthly magazines, consistency is very important. For Seattle Homes & Lifestyles, I used the same copyeditor for over five years. This was ideal because that person knew the house style so well she could make some style decisions independently.

Bill: Sometimes there’s not much of an in-house writing/editing team, so when I’m hired there’s not much to go on. In those cases I may ask to look at an assortment of in-house documents: marketing materials, internal communications, branding documents (this is called a communications audit). If they have a style guide in progress I look at it, then often try to steer the company toward a more robust version.

Q: In various organizations, who are the people you work with? How many of them interact with you? How often do you get to be the “decider”?

Tina: I often just do what those people want rather than try to be the decider. Usually there is a project manager with whom I can communicate (in a project with multiple authors). I might write my style questions, then give them to the project manager to distribute. Often authors will say, “Whatever you think is best,” since writing style is not their specialty.

Dawn: My first line of defense is to try to convey (gently) that I’m the expert in this particular area; and thus have the final call—even when that’s not true. If that fails, I call in other authorities, like the style or branding guide, or “best practices.” Editors are rarely the final decision-maker, so it’s always a negotiation.

Giselle: At my most recent magazine position, I was the decider. Occasionally I’d discuss a style issue with an author; sometimes it was important to the author and sometimes not.

Bill: You should remember that a writer may be beholden to someone else. Writers might answer to a vice president, a corporate manager, even lawyers who review their work. In many fields (such as health care), there are regulatory issues that must be observed.

Writers are typically the SMEs (subject matter experts) and I am essentially the ghostwriter. I have to meld our styles. It’s a collaborative effort, and often neither person gets to be the decider.

Q: Can you share some anecdotes about an unusual or funny style request from a client?

Tina: Once (when I was working on staff as a tech writer with a company), one person was having an emotional reaction to using bullets in a text, saying they were “too violent”! We went around and around, suggesting maybe using dashes or other symbols that she didn’t find disturbing. She also objected to using the serial comma, even though this was an engineering job and their style typically uses the serial comma. Ultimately, I went with the preferences of the client.

Dawn: We have a project at PATH involving sweet potatoes—two words in everyday use, but one word in scientific use: sweetpotato. We’ve had a lot of energetic back and forth about which one to use, especially online, where it’s going to look wrong to someone, no matter what you do!

Bill: People in the corporate world always want to capitalize their titles, even when it’s improper style. It’s hard to talk them out of it!


Q: What do you recommend when it comes to enforcing certain style issues?

Bill: If you can get someone at the top of the organization to, say, put out a document on certain style issues, that’s helpful. They will undoubtedly have more clout than we copyeditors will.

Dawn: I sometimes show them examples of similar documents as a way of saying “This is how it’s done—it’s not just you.” The size of the organization can make a big difference. In a small organization, people may have a greater sense of personal ownership; at a large organization, there’s usually better awareness and acceptance of brand and style. Either way, it really helps to have reinforcement from leadership. “Enforcement” is very situational.

Bill: I’d say that it’s better to think of giving information rather than enforcing, per se. Diplomacy always has a role to play. One woman I know would hold lunches along with style quizzes—and the prizes would include various reference books!

Tina: Some larger companies will set up templates for style that writers can just plug into; everyone is expected to conform. Also, compliance may depend on the particular project manager and how much they’re into style.

Giselle: I haven’t encountered many individuals who really resist style rules; they may not follow the guide particularly well throughout a project, but most don’t really balk when the edits come through.

Bill: Style guides can shortcut a lot of conversations and save time. If you can come to an agreement once, then there’s really no more to debate; style guides aid efficiency.;

Q: The layout of style guides can be a bit haphazard. How do you approach “designing” a style guide?;

Tina: Most often, style guides are just Word documents that people add to; there’s not a lot of forethought involved. If you’re lucky, the list of words will be alphabetized! And this is OK as long as the document is functional.

Bill: A lot of style guides are no more than lists of words. I suggest you look at this book for some ideas (holds up McGraw-Hill Desk Reference for Editors, Writers, and Proofreaders); it has several style templates. It would actually be neat to have software that provided standard style guides for people to base their work on.

Q: How do you make the mental shift when you go between major style guides on various projects?

Tina: I try to get into a mindset where I remember who I’m working for. I’ll go through, say, Chicago or AP and refresh my memory on some of the basics. And if I can’t remember something, I look it up.

Dawn: My first editing job was at a production house with several major medical publishers as clients. We had a cheat sheet for the major differences between them—for example, between Butterworth-Heinemann and Lippincott-Raven—in addition to the full style guides for each publisher.

Q: For medical, health, and scientific documents is there a “higher authority” for style than CMS, AP or AMA? What would be some lesser-known guides that could supplement the major style guides?

All: For health, the AMA is the best backup to CMS. For sciences (e.g., botany), the CSE (Council of Science Editors) guide is used. Also, the Handbook for Technical Writing is used.

Is there a tech-editing program in Seattle?

All: Bellevue College has either a tech-editing and/or a tech-writing certificate program. The Society for Technical Communication (STC) has its own certificate program ( For medical editing, American Medical Writers Association (AMWA) has a certificate program with an editing track. EFA has classes and webinars.


Tina Loucks-Jaret:;
Dawn McCarra Bass:
Giselle Smith:
Bill Thorness:;

Meeting organizer and facilitator: Kyra Freestar
Notetaker: Lisa Gordanier
iLEAP East Hall, Good Shepherd Center

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