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DEAR READER: Work under way to revamp Missourian Stylebook

Friday, June 25, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

It’s fairly easy to decide when it’s time to update the Missourian Stylebook: It’s when the “I Respectfully Disagree” sheet is filled in with comments, suggestions and questions from copy editors, designers and reporters.

The I Respectfully Disagree sheet  — crisp white legal-size paper — is attached by push pin to the copy desk bulletin board as soon as the previous stylebook is sent to the printers. Anyone with a question about the content of the stylebook or who wants a new listing is free to write a suggestion on the sheet.

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Keeping a stylebook up-to-date is a never-ending process. Word usage changes; new words gain in popularity; spelling and punctuation change. Dictionaries frequently publish lists of new words, and The Associated Press issues a new edition yearly.

During any one editing shift at the Missourian, we can have a handful of discussions about style and usage. Having an up-to-date stylebook lets everyone know what’s previously been agreed upon. An often-heard refrain: Look it up. It’s in the stylebook.

Without the stylebook, those discussions could take over the shift, leaving the website and the newspaper unedited and unpublished. And, it could leave readers befuddled. (Is this Martin Luther King trail the same as the MKT Trail? No.) If used correctly, the stylebook guides editors into referring to the same thing or idea in the same way every time.

Updating the Missourian Stylebook can be straightforward. We add a few entries, make a few tweaks to other entries, eliminate some older entries, make note of style and design changes and, in general, clean up any errors from previous editions. (Alas.)

Revising a stylebook isn't for the weak of heart. The work is a test of the editors’ abilities to focus, read and re-read and read again — no typos, no ambivalence, no indecisiveness.

This year’s task is merely an update — adding and revising a few entries. We’ve been sneaking in the needed work between other tasks. Justin Myers, an undergraduate student and the teaching assistant on Sunday nights, has been diligent in helping write new entries and then wrestling with the 104-pages of text-heavy files to make the revisions.

The process starts by compiling all the entries on the I Respectfully Disagree sheet. Then, Missourian editors and members of the stylebook committee add those pet bugaboos they've marked throughout the year. Right now, the edge of my copy of the Missourian Stylebook is sprinkled with neon pink sticky notes, marking pages with entries that need changes, discussion or deletion.

Next, the stylebook committee — Tom Warhover, the editor; Jake Sherlock, Laura Johnston and Nick Jungman, editing and design professors; Stan Schwartz and Anna Codutti, editing instructors; Melissa Varner, night news editor/teaching assistant; Myers and myself — reviews the list of proposed changes. And, yes, it goes similar to any committee meeting — lots of semantic arguments, stances taken for pet preferences and a throwing up of a hands in a who-cares gestures that puts the editor on the hook to write something that pleases everyone. Thank goodness, those are rare.

Mostly, though, it can be fun. For word geeks, these arguments are the equivalent of the World Cup for soccer players and fans.

(Fortunately, none of us at the Missourian are quite as fanatical about our stylebook as the women featured in an obituary in the Wichita Eagle on Sunday: Elizabeth Anne Charlsen, who was described as having been hired by God as the “Best Professional Proofreader In the World,” was also said to be carrying to her “new assignment” her “Bible, Dictionary, Associated Press Style Manual, and ‘Life With Crows’ by Preston & Child.” Personally, I think that if Ms. Charlsen was that good of a proofreader, she might not be too happy to see the errors in the notice of her passing.)

In 2009, we argued mightily about making underway one word in all uses. We did. Wednesday, we decided to reverse that decision.  The change is under way.

And, we’ve decided to follow AP style on tea party — lowercase throughout. Even as we made that decision, though, we agreed it's an entry that will likely need revisiting in future editions.

Between now and Thursday's deadline, we’ll tweak, re-edit, revise, discuss, argue, agree and move on. Then, we’ll send the August 2010 edition of the Missourian Stylebook to the printer. Soon, it will be time to tack up a crisp blank sheet with the heading: I Respectfully Disagree.

Maggie Walter is a night news editor at ColumbiaMissourian.com and the Missourian. She is also an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and teaches copy editing and design. Some of her best friends are words.


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