In praise of style guides – why a new book aimed at designers is perfect for writers too

The Typographic Style Handbook is an excellent new guide for typographers and typesetters – but there’s plenty of great advice in this little book for writers as well

A style guide is a useful reference book for any writer. As an unabashed fan of them there is something appealing in how they function both as a collection of individual rules for good writing and, taken as a whole, as a shaper of voice and a consistent ‘house style’.

At CR, alongside the various elements that form our own house style, we defer to Guardian Style and consult our slightly dog-eared edition every so often. At one time, I may have concealed my excitement whenever a question came up that required picking it off the shelf – but no longer.

We enjoy the debate, the precursor to finding out the answer to our stylistic problem – which is invariably right there in print. Online, queries can often result in conflicting results (it’s useful to have @GuardianStyle on Twitter).

At home I have copies of The Economist Style Guide and The Elements of Style, William Strunk Jr and EB White’s slim classic, originally published in the US in 1920 and expanded in 1959.

The Strunk & White is a little dated in places but remains a great exponent of the power of good writing style. It’s not like I regularly read aloud from either of them or anything, but I do enjoy dipping into their pages, discovering another rule that might come in useful.

I say all this because my fear is that style guides don’t tend to generate that much excitement. They are functional ‘how-to’ books and, like dictionaries and thesauruses, they aren’t exactly read as much as consulted. But a good style guide knows its role as a working document – and that’s why a recently-published book, the Typographic Style Handbook (MacLehose Press), has become a new favourite of mine.

Cover of the Typographic Style Handbook (MacLehose Press)

The Handbook is geared more towards those who work with typography and type directly, yet it has a very similar function to a writing style guide.

Its focus is on the typesetting of text, the design of printed matter and how text can be integrated into an organisation’s own branding guidelines. Hence, it is divided into three sections: General Typesetting; Books and Journals; and Corporate Style.

It is remarkably readable and accessible and I would guess its appeal is much broader than its intended design-led audience.

The Handbook is the work of Michael Mitchell, founder of the Libanus Press, and Susan Wightman, who has worked at the press as a typographer since 1996. “Typography sits at the intersection between language and design,” they state in their introduction – and, just as language adheres to conventions of spelling and grammar, they write, type has its own rules, too.

Yet “many of these rules are not absolute,” they continue, “the typographer, the publisher and author can choose how type is set.” It is how we make these informed choices that is the subject of Mitchell and Wightman’s book.

The information in the book is further divided into three kinds: rules, styles and principles. ‘Rules’ are “typographic conventions that are universally used and understood in the presentation of written text”, while ‘styles’ are type conventions “that vary from organisation to organisation” i.e. whether one uses capitals or small capitals for abbreviations such as BC and AD, or has full points between initials.

‘Principles’ relate to things to bear in mind having chosen a particular typeface or line spacing, for example.

Content of course affects all these choices – and decisions need to be made on a case by case basis – yet there are plenty of pointers here that help inform these kinds of decisions.

As the Handbook is very much a visual guide to typography as well as a text-based one, a lot of consideration has been taken into its design and layout and it is clearly presented and easy to navigate.

From the Typographic Style Handbook

The main body of the Handbook deals with General Typesetting and has sub-sections on body text, punctuation, speech and quotations, lists and tables, headings/sub-headings, incorporating foreign languages, using illustration and even setting plays and poetry.

The Book and Journal Design and Corporate Style sections are smaller, but the book is bolstered by many illustrated examples and several appendices that cover the specifics of everything from marking up proofs to preparing word-processing documents for typesetting (excerpts from the Libanus Press house style guide are even included).

Anyone working with type will find this book useful – and it no doubt makes for a practical companion to something like Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style (which we also have in the office).

For writers with an interest in how text works on the page, be that in print or online, the Handbook also offers great insight into how to get the best out of the words you use.

The Typographic Style Handbook by Michael Mitchell and Susan Wightman is published by MacLehose Press (£14.99). See

From the Typographic Style Handbook

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