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Adapting to House Styles

By: Jennie Kermode - Updated: 6 Dec 2012 | comments*Discuss
House Style Spelling Grammar Tone Editor

If you are serious about writing for newspapers, magazines, or even anthologies, sooner or later you will need to start adapting your work to suit different house styles. This can sometimes be stressful and confusing, especially if you have to keep track of different house styles for different editors. If you can master it, however, being able to adapt quickly and write reliably in accordance with instructions will prove a strong selling point.

Why House Styles Matter

Every professional publication has its own house style. This is a set of rules covering spelling, punctuation and grammar. It can also apply to issues like capitalisation, use of italics and the style in which titles should be written. Despite what you may have been told in school, there is no one set of correct rules governing these matters. There are a number of conventions, each with its own social connotations.

Setting a house style enables a publication to maintain the consistency vital to making a professional impression. It also contributes to its social identity. For instance, a publication that favours semi-colons over dashes and avoids neologisms is likely to be seen as more highbrow than its competitors. A publication that makes extensive use of neologisms and popular acronyms may be seen as more youthful.

As well as communicating messages like these to readers, a house style helps to set the tone for writers. It can help you to identify with the character of the publication you are writing for.

Establishing House Style

Many publications will address issues relating to house style up front, in publicly available documents. Sometimes you will be able to find guidelines on its website, so you can take account of them even when sending query letters and pitches. If they are not available like this, you should read past issues to familiarise yourself with the general style, then ask for guidelines when you first make contact.

House style guidelines are not always complete. If you're writing about unusual or evolving subjects, you may encounter issues that publications haven't had to develop a policy on before. Sometimes, if you are on a short deadline, this means you will have to make a decision on your own. If you do so, always highlight it in a note when you submit your work, so the editor can decide whether to keep or change your approach.

Aspects of House Style

If you are writing for foreign English-language publications, say for the US or Indian markets, you will need to alter your spelling accordingly. Even within Britain, however, there are variant spellings of many commonly used words, such as 'inquiry' and 'enquiry' or 'collectable' and 'collectible'. These matters should be covered by house style.

One of the most common issues that arises in relation to house style is hyphenation. There are many instances in which words may be written separately, in hyphenated form or in conjoined form, such as 'right wing', 'right-wing' and 'rightwing'. This can be hard to keep track of and won't always be picked up by a spellchecker, so it's important to proofread your work.

Every writer has a style of their own which they lapse back into when they're not having to fit in with someone else's rules. A good way to adapt to house styles is to make a list, for each publication, of words that differ from your usual style. You can then search for them in your finished document and make sure you've got them right.

Adapting to house style can be frustrating and, if you are criticised for occasional mistakes, can feel like a thankless task. Get it right, however, and you will prove your seriousness and dedication, making editors much more likely to seek out your work in future.

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