Ricochet Style: A Guide for the Perplexed

 

In response to some of the editorial questions members have asked in the past few days, I thought I’d start by sharing the editors’ Style Guide. (We’ve been meaning to do this for a while, but the Guide is an infinite work-in-progress. We didn’t want to post it until it was perfect. It isn’t perfect yet, as the careful reader will doubtless see. But perfect, enemy of the good, etc.) This won’t answer all of the questions that have come up about the Code of Conduct — that’s another post — but it will give you an idea what the editors are thinking when they edit posts for the Main Feed.

NB: No one is obliged to follow this or even to read it in full. Members may follow the Style Guide if they wish. That would make us happy, because it would reduce our work load, but only up to a point: Our job is to be editors, so the truth is we don’t really, deep down, want everyone to edit their own posts flawlessly. That would make us unnecessary (and thus unemployed). The reason we’re sharing it is just to give you a better idea why posts are edited as they are when we promote them.

If you see that we’ve made a mistake in applying our own style guide, do please let us know. (“Proofreading,” as we like to say on Ricochet, “is just another word for things we do together.”) We make our share of mistakes, to be honest; so chances are, if you think you’ve seen a mistake, you’re right.

INTRODUCTION

Every publication worth its salt has its own Style Guide. The compilation process usually begins with a week-long battle among the editors, who’ve all been trained to do it differently and all view each others’ training as heresy. Usually these debates are resolved before the first issue by a burly copy-desk chief who spent twenty years editing copy-editing in the African bush, carries a carving knife in one hand and a whiskey flask in the other, and quickly establishes a reign of terror in the newsroom.

Because Ricochet is modeled on the idea of user participation, we haven’t wanted to be quite so traditional and heavy-handed. Our members aren’t paying to be lectured, screamed at, or humiliated because they didn’t spell “Shia” according to our House Style. That would be offputting, obviously, and would detract attention from the main rule — civility and respect.

We’ve increasingly found, however, that members want to know why we change things as we do when edit them or promote them to the Main Feed, and we’ve noticed that as we ramp up and expand, new editors and contributors (understandably) don’t know the informal style rules we’ve developed. Thus we’ve codified below – at least in part – the rules.

GENERAL

  • Unless otherwise specified, appeal to the Chicago Manual of Style.
  • Our house dictionary is Merriam-Webster. Unless otherwise specified, appeal to their definition and to the usage they prefer.
  • On all matters of style, appeal to Strunk & White.
  • NB editors: The first order of business and by far the most important is proofreading.
  • Do not put quoted text, if it’s accurately cited, in our House Style. If the accurately quoted text contains truly jarring errors, [sic] them.

SPELLING, PUNCTUATION, CAPITALIZATION, ABBREVIATION

  • All headlines, always, should be in title case. Please check carefully for this. No periods at the end of a headline. (Every so often, a post has a question mark early in the headline. These are the only cases in which we add a period to the end.)
  • Use one space after a sentence, not two.
  • All spelling, punctuation, and usage should be American. Please be vigilant in the extirpation of UK spellings (such as “colour,” “theatre,” “travelling,” “towards”: ALL INCORRECT). Note: Spellcheck will not necessarily recognize the difference, so if in doubt, look it up. Likewise, please check to ensure that punctuation is inside quotation marks, American style, e.g.
  • “All men are mortal.” CORRECT
  • “All men are mortal,” said Socrates. CORRECT
  • This applies to questions, too.
  • Please remember that the American usage of collective nouns often differs from British usage. Look carefully at sentences that contains of collective nouns (such as fractions). Ask first: Do Americans think this takes the plural? If yes, fine. If in doubt, ask whether the noun is describing the group or its individual components. Remember: Some nouns are collective in British English, but not in American. “Government,” for example.
  • Please also keep in mind that some of our authors are not native English speakers, so be watchful for the sorts of errors non-natives might make, such as using « French-style quotation marks. » INCORRECT (This is perhaps not the best example, since we haven’t yet captured the French market, but the day will come.)
  • If a phrase is in a foreign language, please do your best to ensure it’s correctly spelled, with appropriate diacritical marks, unless there is a well-accepted English spelling of the name. Commonly used foreign phrases such as “belle époque” need not be translated, but more esoteric phrases should be; if they require translation, they also require italicization. Otherwise, italics clutter, so there is generally no need for them.
  • We use the serial comma. We repeat: Serial comma. Oxford comma. Comma after the last item in the list and before “or” or “and.” Be extremely vigilant in looking for irregularities in this.
  • More on commas: They are mandatory wherever the Chicago Manual says they are and wherever they are required for clarity, but otherwise unnecessary. We use no more than we need. Please don’t add unnecessary commas; but of course, please make sure they’re to be found everywhere they should be.
  • Please pay close attention to hyphenation, strictly following the guidelines in the Chicago Manual of Style, unless it’s an exception that’s standard in the specialist literature. Look particularly for errors in the use of “ex.” “The ex-president of Zimbabwe” is CORRECT.
  • If you’re unsure about the hyphenation of a term and can find no guidance in the Chicago Manual, or if using their rules results in something that looks weird or wrong to you, please search on Google and choose the most-used form. Thus, for example, “ocean surface temperature” would not be hyphenated.
  • We use closed punctuation throughout, especially with respect to commas, especially with respect to prepositional phrases. Commas should function like parentheses: If there is one, there should be another. Initial prepositional phrases (In the beginning, God …) should be understood to have an implicit but suppressed comma before the sentence ( … , in the beginning, God …).
  • Ellipses take a space before … and a space after. This causes physical pain to those of us raised on AP Style. Prayers appreciated.
  • Em dashes should not be used to present a list; use a colon.
  • [emphasis added] is always inside the quotation marks, right after the words that have been emphasized, not at the end of the paragraph.
  • Common and well-known abbreviations (USA) need not be spelled out. Uncommon ones should be spelled-out on first usage, but not thereafter. We abbreviate without periods: US, NASA, SCOTUS are CORRECT.
  • Don’t use acronyms unless the entity is discussed more than once. If you see an acronym, check to be sure it’s necessary. Try to avoid them where possible on aesthetic grounds.
  • Capitalize political parties: Republican, Democrat. Do not capitalize ideologies: liberal, conservative, communist, progressive. Do not capitalize “left” and “right,” but capitalize “the Left” and “the Right.” Capitalize Marxist. Spell Labour in the British fashion if referring to the political party. Capitalize titles when preceding a name, lower case when used alone. “President Lincoln. The president.” Lower case when used in apposition: “Former president Carter.” Capitalized if in formal introduction: “Ladies and Gentleman, the President.” Running for president is CORRECT, and President Reagan is also CORRECT.
  • Our style is Obamacare, CPAC, the President, the US Congress, the United States Supreme Court.
  • Muslim, Shia, Shiite, Shiism, Quran. Use no variant thereupon.
  • We use first and last names at first reference: “Stanley Blodgett reported … ” We thereafter refer to him as Blodgett. The rule is not inviolable; editors may apply discretion.
  • Lists of people or other things should be alphabetized, unless this violates common sense. “Such insects were found in Africa, Antarctica, Australia, Eurasia, North America, and South America.”

STYLE

  • Please correct mistakes in diction, such as the incorrect use of the word “comprise,” or the conflation of “that” and “which.” (NB: The latter is one of the most common mistakes we see.) We err on the side of “strict and old-fashioned.” A very non-inclusive list of common confusions:
    • less/fewer
    • comprise/composed/include
    • likely/probably/liable
    • such as/like
    • beg the question/suggests or raises the question
    • founder/flounder
    • critique/criticize
    • impact/affect
    • capital/capitol
    • climactic/climatic
    • elicit/illicit
    • persuade/convince
    • rebut/refute
    • disinterested/uninterested
    • center/epicenter
    • mortified/embarrassed
    • discreet/discrete
    • toward/towards (all directional prepositions should be Americanized)
  • When promoting a post, always replace anything hinting of vulgarity with a more elegant phrase, even if the phrase in question is not strictly forbidden. Replace “scum,” for example.
  • “He” is an acceptable gender-neutral pronoun on Ricochet and often preferable to awkward constructions such as, “He or she may edit his or her posts using his or her best judgment.” But avoid the absurd. “Each presidential candidate has his strengths” would be obviously jarring. “Their” may not be used in the singular.
  • Terminate all clichés with extreme prejudice. The previous sentence, for example, should be terminated. “Social justice warrior” and other right-wing clichés should be replaced. TK: LIST OF RIGHT-WING CLICHÉS ALWAYS TO BE REPLACED (If you’ve read this far, Ricochet members, please feel free to suggest them.)
  • There is no need for redundant punctuation!!! Isn’t one question mark quite enough???
  • Our audience will include specialists in the field – who will notice mistakes acutely – but everything should be reasonably accessible to any educated reader.
  • Government titles are discouraged when applied to former office-holders on first mention. So: “Senator Marco Rubio and Governor Scott Walker,” but “Rick Perry, Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee, and Rick Santorum.”
  • Bullet-point lists should generally be converted to prose in any post we promote.
  • When appropriate, extract key passages of linked articles and incorporate them into the text. The link can’t do the heavy lifting of making the argument in the linked text.
  • Quotation marks should be used only for quotations, not as the expression of emphasis or irony. (Be vigilant about this.) Italics may be used for emphasis or irony, but sparingly. ALL CAPS should be converted to italics unless there’s an exceptionally good reason to leave them as they are. This will be rare.
  • Eliminate the unnecessary use of “that.” If it isn’t needed for clarity, it isn’t needed at all. For example, “He said that it was unnecessary” is INCORRECT.
  • Please check for tense agreement in reported speech. (“He said it was,” not “He said it is.”)
  • Rhetorical questions, when allowed to become a stylistic tic, make an essay sound like an exercise in propaganda and are to be eschewed. (Why did Comrade Stalin warn of fascist aggression? Because Comrade Stalin understood that … ). That said, they are not forbidden. Just keep an eye out for this.
  • Two short sentences are better than one long sentence, unless a writer has the skill to handle subordinating constructions. That’s rare.
  • If a writer uses the phrase “in other words,” he has not yet said what he meant; if he has, he has no need to say it twice. But vivid analogical language can be helpful in a technical presentation of a topic. In those cases, it may be helpful.
  • Use the bare minimum of intensifiers, such as “really,” “obviously,” and the like.
  • Sentences should be connected internally and without the use of clumsy bridging devices.
  • Replace the passive voice with the active. Please be especially watchful for this, especially if your name is, “Claire,” who originally wrote, “The passive voice should be replaced by the active,” and published this guide on Ricochet after doing so. INCORRECT

FACT CHECKING

  • Assume that all factual claims beyond the bleedin’ obvious should be easily substantiated. Depending on specifics, this may require no more than a fact-check by the editor, or a hyperlink within the text of the post.If you suspect something is off or can’t substantiate an important claim, hold off on promotin and contact the author, politely asking for a source.
  • All quoted text must be checked against the original document, if it can be found online. If possible, trace the assertion to the original source: We all-too-often find, when we do this, that journalists have misquoted or misrepresented the original.
  • All links must be checked against the original. Make sure the link is correct.
  • Please fact-check as much as practically possible; e.g., please quickly confirm dates, spellings of proper names, and any assertion that you suspect needs checking.
  • Please pay special attention to the spellings that wouldn’t be picked up by a spellcheck program, such as proper nouns or specialist terms.
  • Please make sure, if you see, for example, a sum of numbers, that the numbers really add up. Please check any mathematical assertion to the limit of your mathematical ability.

EXCEPTIONS TO THE RULES

The following rules take priority over the Chicago Manual:

  • An important exception to CMOS: We do not use the Chicago Manual’s style on capitalization after colons. We use AP style: We capitalize the first letter of a complete sentence. We do not capitalize the first letter if what follows is a list: red, yellow, and blue, for example.
  • We do not italicize name of newspapers or other websites. The New York Times, not The New York Times. This is to avoid visual clutter. (Book titles should be italicized and other CMOS rules followed.) NB: The New York Times is CORRECT, as is the Washington Post; if in doubt about the capitalization of “the,” check.
  • If a book title is hyperlinked, do not italicize it: It’s visually cluttering.

DATES AND NUMBERS

  • Please spell out numbers in cases where it isn’t absurd to do so. This requires a bit of judgment. Our goal is to be aesthetically pleasing without being confusing or hugely inconsistent. So:
  • Spell out numbers below 10 and round numbers, no matter how large: a thousand, three thousand, a trillion. Use your judgment, though, and consider how it looks in context: “A span of 3,000 to 3,013 years” looks better than “a span of three thousand to 3,013 years.” Flag if you’re unsure.
  • ten thousand, but 1010
  • Use numerals, not the spelled-out form, in the following cases:
  • 13 percent,
  • “a ratio of 10 to 20”
  • decimal numbers: 4.5
  • in a list, or in a mathematical equation
  • Spell out “nineteenth century,” lower case. No hyphen unless it’s being used as an adjective: “a nineteenth-century style rule.”
  • 1980s, 1451, and otherwise, straight Chicago Manual. No comma, obviously. If a date is abbreviated, use the apostrophe: ’80s is CORRECT; 80s is INCORRECT. We mildly prefer “between 1976 and 1981” to other constructions expressing the same concept, such as “from 1976 to 1981.”
  • Ratios: 10 to 1, not 10:1, but “5:1 to 4:1″, not “5 to 1 to 4 to 1.” (The colon should be used when comparing ratios to other ratios.)
  • Use a comma in numbers exceeding three numerals (e.g., 1,276) — dates aside.
  • percent, not per cent, unless dealing with a long list, in which case %. Use common sense about when to substitute the symbol.
  • Distance: 725 m, km, or any unit of distance. (A space between the number and the unit.)
  • The word “fraction” may be singular or plural depending on context; please be aware of the rules that govern this and make sure it’s used correctly.

TYPOGRAPHY

  • Ellipses should have one space before, one after: “He sneezed … and then he coughed.”
  • Likewise em dashes and en dashes.

CODE OF CONDUCT PRINCIPLES 

We permit no swearing or vulgarities, obviously. These words are not permissible even when half-replaced by asterisks. When promoting a post, apply more rigorous standards than you would in editing a comment. While we would usually allow “Obama came off as an assclown” to slide, for example, it should not be on a Main Feed post.

All of the following are bad arguments and are to be eschewed, particularly on the Main Feed:

  • Appealing to strawmen
  • Ad hominem
  • Slippery slope
  • Special pleading
  • False cause
  • Personal incredulity
  • Appeal to authority
  • Appeal to emotion
  • No true Scotsman
  • The Texas Sharpshooter
  • Anecdotal
  • Begging the question
  • Tu quoque
  • Composition/division
  • Appeal to nature

Particularly to be eschewed are all forms of ad hominem attack, from the overt to the infinitely-subtle. Not only are they bad arguments, inherently, they’re antithetical to the congenial spirit of Ricochet.

De-personalize criticism of groups or ideas. Unless you are absolutely certain that a belief is an essential quality of an idea, offer qualification. “Many Catholics believe,” or, “The idea is typical of libertarians,” for example. (Depending on the assertion. Obviously, “Catholics believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ” needs no qualification.)

Keep Hitler out of it unless you’re speaking of Hitler. He belongs in discussions of the Wannsee Convention; he does not belong to discussions about Donald Trump.

POST TITLES

  • Post titles should keep SEO in mind. People tend to search Google using two-to- three search terms.
  • Consider what the post is about. Is it about John Kerry in Cuba? The search terms will be “john kerry cuba” or “kerry cuba.” The post’s title should start with the search terms: “John Kerry visits Cuba,” “John Kerry: Cuba Needs Genuine Democracy.” Avoid vague titles: “Democracy in Havana? Pshaw.”
  • If you’re promoting a post and changing the post title, change the post’s permalink (URL). When creating a new post, the permalink is automatically the same as the post title. But if you change the post title, the permalink will not be updated. Do it manually. The permalink does not need to be exactly the same as the post title, and in fact should omit non-necessary words. For instance: ricochet.com/kerry-cuba-democracy/ rather than ricochet.com/john-kerry-cuba-needs-genuine-democracy/ (although that last is not terrible).
  • Avoid having a post title of “John Kerry Visits Cuba” and a permalink of ricochet.com/democracy-in-havana-pshaw/.

PHOTOS

  • Images are always recommended but never necessary, and should never be used to distraction. If you cannot find a good image to illustrate a piece, do not use any image.
  • In general, check Shutterstock first, then consider other options. If using other sources — for example, Wikicommons — try to find an image either in the public domain or with a Creative Commons license. There is no need for attribution in the case of the former.
  • Long pieces (1,200+ words) may use additional images, but are never necessary.
  • Avoid:
    • Commercial photographs that we don’t have the license to use.
    • Meme-generator images: they look tacky and cheap.
    • Painfully saccharine stock images.
  • Images should be posted in consistent sizes:
    • Horizontal/landscape images: 350 pixels wide
    • Vertical/portrait images: 250 pixels wide
    • Square images: 300 pixels wide
    • Images can be resized in WordPress. If they are very large (i.e., 2000 pixels by 1500 pixels), then WordPress will automatically reduce their size to maximum 1400X1400. If you want to, you can also manually reduce image sizes in an image editing program before uploading, but you don’t have to.
      • However, if you do, don’t resize them down too much. They should be no smaller than 600px on their shortest side (whether height or length). You should use the full size image from the Media Library, then resize it manually with the custom size setting. The reason for all of this is that the image will be fuzzy on a Retina screen otherwise.
  • For SEO purposes:
    • Images should have a descriptive name (john-kerry.jpg, not jk.jpg)
    • Images should have Alt Text and Titles, which can be identical (“John Kerry in Cuba” for both)
    • The file name, Alt Text, and Title of an image should match closely the post title and post url.

HYPERLINKS

  • For SEO purposes, we don’t want a huge number of outgoing links: We don’t want to send visitors away from Ricochet. All outgoing links should open in a new window. While there may not be a need to link to a new article, the reader may be annoyed if there’s no link, so judgment’s required.
  • The words that are in an active link should be descriptive, so visitors know where the link will take them: “The federal government recently spent $800,000 studying the dating habits of obese teenage girls” is bad. “The federal government recently spent $800,000 studying the dating habits of obese teenage girls” is better. Editors should always think, “What will people search for on Google?” Try to get those words into the post’s title, the first sentence in the post, the name of an image attached to the post, and a link in the post.
  • This helps the SEO of the linked-to site, but also our own SEO, when people search Google for “dating habits obese teenage girls” or “dating habits teenager girls.”
  • Limit number of words in an active link to 5-6 words. Don’t make the entire sentence an active link.
  • Internal links (to other Ricochet posts) don’t need to open in a new window. But it’s even more important that the active links be descriptive.

 

PDF: Ricochet Style Guide revised 8-28-15.

 

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