Making your research accessible

Policymaker, policy maker, or policy-maker?

By 12 October 2009

Word processors have changed dramatically the way we all work. There is still a lot for editors to do, but today it is easier for authors to get their text right. And with so much more being published and budgets constrained, the fact of life is that most material is never edited, so the more authors can get right, the better the final product will be.

The aim of editing is to ensure that the reader is able to understand just what the author is trying to convey. Even if the substance is there, if the language is ambiguous, or the text tiring or distracting to read, the author can quickly lose some of the audience that they had gained. If you can’t afford an editor you can help your project’s future readers enormously by developing a ‘house style’ for all your written outputs.

Some house style manuals are very detailed, and in addition to standardising spelling they cover the way one ought to use words and phrases, as well as guide design such as styles of headings and text fonts. But even if you cover only the ten points below, you will make your written materials much more consistent, and create fewer distractions for your readers. Below them are some links to the house style guides of some very well-known publications – they are interesting reads in themselves, but you can always choose one of them and ask your authors to follow that style, and then add any extra rules specific to your project. I have also included a link to a good online guide to English usage, and to the Plain English Campaign’s ‘A-Z of Alternative Words’, which might persuade your authors to use more of our short clear Saxon-origin words instead of their longer Latin-inspired cousins.

Ten key house style points

1. Decide on basic British vs American spellings , plus s or z if you go for British, then add any exceptions for your own version of English, which varies across the world. A list of the most obvious spelling choices is helpful, but you can also choose and specify a particular dictionary.

2. Every field has its own jargon and specialist terms, including acronyms. Make a list of these with agreed spellings for authors (and definitely for editors).

3. Decide whether to use single or double quotes, a comma after the second-last item in a list or not (e.g. She carried a bag, ball, and stick.), % or per cent or percent, USD or US$, Dr or Dr. and eg or e.g. for abbreviations, metric or imperial measurements, and clarify any other text where there is more than one correct spelling.

4. Many projects work in well-defined countries or geographical areas. Make a list of the key place names, people, organisations, currencies, local context terms (e.g. parliament or assembly), and non-English words that will be regularly used in project outputs.

5. Agree which typeface or font your projects will use for which outputs, and which heading styles (size, font, and use of capital letters). This will prevent enthusiastic but inexperienced authors from peppering their papers with far too many variations. This includes indenting paragraphs (in general and after headings), and the style for table headings and labels, and figure and photograph captions.

6. Agree how citations and references should appear, so that readers can search for information easily and time and money is not wasted having to standardise them after the document is ready for publication.

7. Make sure anyone who is producing outputs in your project has the correct logo, has a high-resolution version for printing and a low-resolution version for electronic uses, and knows the difference.

8. Unnecessary spaces in your document will make word processing software behave unpredictably when it comes to layout. Remove any extra spaces at the end of headings and paragraphs, in tables, and only leave one space after a full stop at the end of a sentence. (Double and even triple spaces were necessary when documents were typewritten. It gave the writer some extra space to play with when they had to go back and paint out and correct mistakes.)

9. Make sure any document that is likely to be printed out contains all your contact details as well as citation details for the document itself on an inside page (not just on the cover, which is often removed on pdfs), including the web address if it’s available online. Hotlinks are convenient in electronic papers, but the key information is hidden once the document is printed out.

10. Use capital letters, bold, and italics sparingly.

Some useful links:

BBC News Style Guide

Guardian Style Guide

The Economist Style Guide

Chicago Manual of Style

Common Errors in English Usage by Paul Brians

Plain English Campaign’s ‘The A–Z of Alternative Words’

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