Matters of style

The first section of W. H. Oliver's notes on editorial style, typewritten for DNZB staff around 1986

The first section of W. H. Oliver's notes on editorial style, typewritten for DNZB staff around 1986 (click to see a larger version)

Dictionary of New Zealand Biography General Editor W. H. Oliver must have compiled these notes, reproduced in full below, for DNZB staff on his typewriter about 1986. It was shortly before I (and Nancy Swarbrick, now Te Ara’s senior editor) joined the team that worked on the five-volume magnum opus, which was published between 1990 and 2000, along with its Māori-language companion, Ngā Tāngata Taumata Rau. These notes have remained my guiding principles in setting the editorial style for Te Ara, of which the DNZB is now part.

The section on style is a succinct statement of the principles that have guided us, and also demonstrates Bill Oliver’s own limpid and delectable way with words.

Although the notes were written for the particular circumstances of the new and ground-breaking project, they capture the essence of how to deal with multiple authors on a collaborative project of reference and authority, as well as being a delightful piece of prose in their own right.

Bill Oliver is a poet as well as a distinguished historian. You can read more about him in Te Ara …

Bill Oliver, seen here as a young academic with pipe (click for image credit)

Bill Oliver, seen here as a young academic with pipe (click for image credit)

Editorial Principles and Practices

1. Principles

(a) Unless a major rewrite is necessary, preserve and if possible enhance the characteristics of the original, so that it does not lose the ‘signature’ of the writer.

(b) Look always for economy, but avoid over-compression leading to dense, congested and knotty prose (like this!).

(c) Be on guard against the omission of aspects of a life which, perhaps, bore the writer, or are not germane to his/her thesis, but which deserve a place in a reference work.

(d) Note, for further discussion, instances where a writer ignores fairly acceptable views with which he/she does not agree.

(e) Keep in mind the possibility that the originally assigned length may have been too great or too small, and note arguments for either expansion or contraction.

(f) When, as will be generally the case, the received length exceeds the assigned length, begin with the assumption that the assigned length was about right, and edit towards that length.

2. More on Length

Note at the outset the disparity between assigned and received lengths. If the received length is the greater, consider this as a prima facie case for reduction, and look for very strong arguments before concluding that the assigned length was inadequate. If the two are about the same, still look for chances to economise. If the received length is shorter, take care to look for significant omissions. In all cases, keep in mind the possibility that the assigned length was too generous.

3. Matters of Substance

(a) Ensure that the opening paragraph has a ‘thumb-nail sketch’: character, major items of life-data, note of occupation/activity/significance, main period and region.

(b) Be severe on over-elaborate detail – e.g. office-holding, particulars of military engagements, business interests and connections, electoral fortunes, family connections.

(c) Precis over-long passages on parts of career outside New Zealand.

(d) Note absence of physical description and indication of personality where (e. g. in longer essays on eminent subjects) it would be reasonable to expect it.

(e) Note when quotations, matters of fact not common knowledge, unusual opinions, lack a footnote reference.

4. Matters of Style

(a) Note, and consider the necessity of, phrases which weaken a statement and allow the writer to avoid making up his/her mind. Very often such a phrase as “It may have been the case that he/she believed…. ” should simply read “He/she believed…”

(b) Eliminate, except in unusual cases, phrases which relate to evidence rather than conclusions. Most of the time “There is some evidence to suggest that he/she believed….” should become “He/she believed….” (or at most “probably he/she believed…”.)

(c) Names of sources, authorities, other historians etc should never (well, hardly ever) be cited in the text. If a writer will not endorse a viewpoint, then he/she should not put it forward. If conflicting views are being rehearsed, they should be set out as simply as possible, without ascription.

(d) Eliminate all throat clearing openings to sentences – “In this connection….” “It should be noted that….” “As was shown earlier…. ” There is hardly ever a good reason for using words like “Furthermore”, “Moreover” and so on.

(e) Passages of deep-breathing will quite frequently be found. These are limbering-up exercises, quite useful to the writer in getting ready to say something, but of no use to the reader.

(f) Eliminate phrases in which historians are nodding and winking to each other , and making allusions which the general reader will find baffling e. g. “King Charles’s head”, “crossing the Rubicon”, “road to Damascus”, “noblest Roman of them all” – i.e. pretty well everything that is a disguised quotation, usually from the Bible or Shakespeare.

(g) Regard all adjectives with an element of suspicion, and pairs of adjectives with acute suspicion. E. g. “Grey’s characteristic honesty”, or “Grey was an honest and straightforward man”.

5. Golden Rule

Remember always that writers are expected to write an entry in a reference book, not an article in a learned journal, or a thesis, or a full length book, and that they will often be far more used to these leisurely genres than to a brief essay.

WHO [W. H. Oliver]

One comment added so far

  1. Comment made by Caren Wilton || November 14th, 2014

    Yes, an elegantly written piece of prose, and some very good advice too, though I’m fascinated by and not exactly clear on the ‘passages of deep-breathing’! The original is a lovely thing in itself, visually quite delightful, with its typewritten XXXs (not kisses, as they might be today, but crossings-out of errors). And its spelling mistakes!

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