Challenging the Status Quo With Style Guides

There is more than one way to approach setting standards for the writing and formatting of documents. An important thing to keep in mind is having a continuous awareness of, and sensitivity to, the use of text within our changing world, and to build style guides as tools that can help reflect our values, rather than a set of rules that never advance.

In my work at CanLII, I’ve had the opportunity to develop a style guide to help meet the needs of our collaborative writing projects. I also think about writing standards in my volunteer work as the associate editor for the Canadian Law Library Review. I’ve previously discussed editing legal resources on Slaw, but today I would like to focus on some of what I’ve learned about style guides in particular. 

Creating a style guide is a necessary step for directing copy editing choices, communicating these choices with the copyeditor and other project members, and ensuring consistency across resources. It might contain details on formatting, grammar, punctuation, tone, audience, and wording.

Last March, I attended a workshop hosted by The Magazine Association of BC called “Upgrade Your House Style: Anti-Oppressive Copy-Editing” with andrea bennett. During this workshop, we explored principles and themes in anti-oppressive copy-editing, the importance of building collaborative relationships with authors, and discussed current copy-editing best practices around race, sex, gender, sexual orientation, Indigeneity and colonialism, disability, and substance use and addiction. The last part of the workshop looked at some examples with explanations. As andrea mentioned at the start of their workshop “If you are not copy editing from an anti-oppressive perspective, you may be inadvertently copy-editing from an oppressive one.” If you’re in a position where you are creating style guides, or editing other people’s work, I hope these key takeaways I’ve learned from this session and from my work will be of some use. 

Style guides aren’t written in stone

  • We don’t have to do everything that the McGill guide or Canadian Style tells us to do *gasp*! A style guide represents an approach, not a strict set of rules. It provides guidance on common usage of text and should change over time as that use changes over time. 
  • In our CanLII style guide, we have guidelines for citing legislation, decisions, and commentary on CanLII to ensure that our citator tool “RefLex” can appropriately hyperlink to these resources. While some of these guidelines are set in place in order to improve navigation and searchability, other aspects might be word preferences made by editors or authors. These preferences are often chosen based on common use, and it is here where some aspects can be problematic if not considered thoughtfully. Consider the impact of a period missing after the “v” in a style of cause, compared to defaulting a lawyer in a written scenario as male. Using inclusive language (for example, using “chairperson” instead of “chairman”) avoids exclusionary vocabulary that can reinforce negative stereotypes. It respects and promotes all people as valued members of society, which can help your resources resonate with a broad audience.

Be collaborative rather than authoritative

  • A good approach to copyediting is to examine and inquire, rather than correct. Instead of telling an author that their run-on sentence is wrong, you can ask why they wrote it that way and if it works in that instance. There may be a good reason someone chose to write something in an “uncommon” way, and the only way to know why is to ask!
  • Establishing good relationships with writers is key to building a successful resource. It fosters mutual respect and understanding. 

Follow the lead of those who have the knowledge and expertise on certain issues

  • We can’t assume to know how people other than ourselves think and feel. Taking the time to listen and learn from others can help us build better resources.

Below is a list of some of the suggested resources from the workshop and others that I’ve encountered through my work:

Indigenous Peoples




Substance use and addiction


Sexual violence

Additional resources: 

  • The Conscious Style Guide: (A huge resource that includes guides on plain language, health, empowerment, gender, race, age and more)

What are your thoughts on style guides? Do you have any additional resources you like to use? Let me know in the comments!

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