Honing the House Style

The Editing course at the Seagull School has completed its fifth week now, with us students learning our share of editing, going through back-to-back lessons in punctuation, grammar and styles, sharpening the blunt edges of memories of the lessons learnt in school. But this time, there is neither the dread nor the boredom of school!

When I had signed up for the course, I was, frankly, a bit nervous about taking lessons from professionals—who are usually grumpy and ‘serious’ looking. However, that nervousness did not even take an hour to vanish, once I got to interact with the instructors, Sunandini, Sohini and Bishan. Their easy way of addressing make the classes more of a friendly chat session. That, combined with the environment of the school (not to forget the wonderful coffee at the breaks), makes up the best possible ‘class’ one would like to attend!

Moving swiftly from joint classes on publishing, sales and marketing, and the ‘structure’ of a book, we separated into our respective specializations, Editing and Designing. Then started the ‘real’ classes . . . But don’t think I am trying to sound morbid! It was just the opposite of that. Brushing up on the long-forgotten rules of punctuation, with the addition of newer concepts (like the Oxford comma, not at all as awe-inspiringly difficult as it sounds) and the complicated rules of grammar (oh the horrid verbs and tenses!), was actually quite fun, and believe it or not, I waited (and still do) to come to class each day and tackle language!

The fifth week introduced us to a new term—House Style—a term I have never heard before in my life (a rather short span till now). What it really means is a particular style of editing, that a publishing house follows, while making ‘books’ out of manuscripts. As I came to know further, each house has its own style manual and each one is, in some way or the other, different from other house styles. This gave me an idea as to what that hardback light-blue book named The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.), volumes of which were kept in a neat row, was! It was the style Seagull followed while editing all the manuscripts that came their way, and the book gave precise pointers on each sections of editing. No wonder I had not understood the head and tail of it when I had first opened it three weeks back!

The ‘elements’ of House Style, as they are known, are mainly these: spelling, punctuation, capitalization, italicization, hyphenation, style of writing numbers, references and pagesetting. We were taken step by step through the major issues, first by Bishan and then by Sohini, and what I came to know literally changed many of my earlier deepset conventions of writing. Of course some were a bit difficult to digest at first, and some downright confusing! I mean, why should only prehistoric cultural periods be capitalized and not modern periods? Or, why should religious texts be capitalized but not italicized?! But again, the immense patience and humour of our two instructors to help us get these into our heads! Again in case of numbers, we learnt the style that Seagull uses to represent numbers from 0 to 9 and 10 onwards. It was a real pleasure for both parties when Sohini’s ‘Is there any question?’ did not bring up any further doubts from us! Of course these styles vary from house to house, but the basic idea was firmly set into our heads. These lessons, topped with a full exercise session on the third day made sure that we were more or less adept in the various elements of the House Style.

Photograph by Dhritish Gupta
Photograph by Dhritish Gupta

One statement by both Bishan and Sohini struck me, and has stuck to my mind since then. They said, as editors, we needed to ensure that our readers enjoy a reading uninterrupted by visual distractions or confusions or any sort of obscurity. ‘Use your heads,’ they said, ‘and be consistent.’ This last bit of advice, I believe, is the one most necessary to become a good editor. Looking forward to many more of these interesting lessons . . . Oh Time! Please run slow!

Dhritish Gupta

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