Good writing is all about good communication, which is pretty obvious, but that means different things to different people, and sometimes, unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to mean much at all. At Trigger, we worship before the altars of plain language, British English and the ever-so-elegant Chicago Manual of Style. Our gods are our readers, and we want them not just appeased but pleased. If you’ll join us in our worship, the publication process will be smoother for everyone, from writers to editors to readers. Please give this section a close look before you start writing, and please give it another close look before you submit.
As noted in our submission guidelines, we’re not an academic journal, so the tone we strive for is less dense and more conversational. We want non-specialist Trigger readers to learn from our specialist writers, and we want specialist Trigger writers to enjoy teaching our non-specialist readers.
The first thing academically experienced writers might feel uncomfortable with is our use of contractions – that is, we don’t write ‘you are’; we write ‘you’re’. Journals use much more formal language, but that’s their thing. Ours is breezier. Having said that, we sometimes like a long form for emphasis, such as ‘I am not reading this stilted prose.’
Another tendency we sometimes notice is overly long sentences. You can have all your clauses in line, all your punctuation and conjunctions where they should be, but if the sentence hangs shroud-like over half a page, readers will get lost in the drapery, and that’s because the focus of your thinking has too. It’s not that we don’t like a mix of sentence types. We very much do. We like them simple, compound, complex and compound-complex, terms that indicate how many and what kinds of clauses they feature. When you get into more elaborate compound-complex structures, it’s usually best to stick to just two independent clauses and one dependent. Then start another sentence. Variate the length. Strike up a rhythm. Dance with your reader.
In the event that description was too grammatically technical, allow us to break it down in plainer language: we like to see clear, concise and, at least relative to the standards of academia, short sentences. And concise doesn’t mean skeletal. Your sentences can be full of interesting features they could probably live without. We encourage that. But it does mean that if you’ve already outfitted one in a snazzy bowler’s hat, trying to cram a wide-brim Stetson on top is just too much.
What about academic terminology? Use it. By all means. But go easy on your reader and introduce specialised terms and concepts. We’re not saying you need to give us a full education; often, a brief definition is all a reader needs to feel welcomed in a text. They won’t get side-tracked with questions about meaning, and as a result, they’ll remain engaged in all your incredible ideas. As a quick example, let’s use the observer effect. Likely, your readers have heard of it in the context of photography, but then again, maybe they haven’t. All you have to do is write something along these lines: ‘…due to the observer effect, which is when a subject behaves differently while they’re being watched.’ Just sixteen words of explanation. No need to get into physics as the origin of the metaphor. Just a neat and tidy overview, and now you can use the term going forward.
Finally, while even the most formal academia seems to be coming around on this next one, we encourage the use of first person pronouns. Not only are they the heartbeat of personal reflections, which we like to publish, they also negate the need for passive constructions, which are those annoying sentences that don’t identify a subject (e.g., ‘An analysis was done, and the work was completed’). Sometimes, you can’t avoid them, but for the most part, you can.
As much as possible, we follow the conventions of British English. In a world as integrated as ours, there’s not always agreement on every detail of our approach, but generally speaking, British English is longer than American English (let’s leave the hybrid Englishes, like Canadian and Australian, out of the discussion). What that means is that the American ‘labor’ is the British ‘labour’. It means that ‘traveling’ in the United States is actually ‘travelling’ in the United Kingdom. It means Americans look ‘toward’ the future, while Brits look ‘towards’ it. Americans donate to ‘nonprofits’ and Brits to ‘non-profits’. You do get exceptions. For example, students go through ‘enrollment’ in America, whereas in Britain, they only have to go through ‘enrolment’. Still, generally speaking, British English has longer spellings. Another major difference is the American use of Z in ‘-ize’ and ‘-ization’ suffixes; the Brits tend to use an S: ‘-ise’ and ‘-isation’.
There are some important punctuation differences as well. First, British English tends to use single quotation marks for primary quotes and double for quotes that appear inside primary quotes. Here’s an example: ‘The editor read the essay twice, brought a finger to their chin and said, “Not bad, not bad.”’ Further, when the punctuation point isn’t part of the actual quote, it doesn’t go inside the quotation mark. Here’s an example: ‘The project will be delivered on time’, the minister lied. ‘And on cost.’ The other important punctuation difference is the absence of a serial comma, which is the comma that comes after ‘and’ in lists of three or more items. American English will tend towards ‘eating, sleeping, and repeating’, whereas British English is more often into ‘eating, sleeping and repeating’.
Finally, a conspicuous difference between the two is how they render dates, which is important to note for your academic referencing. In the United States, it’s Thursday, February 11, 2021, but in the United Kingdom, it’s Thursday, 11 February 2021.
There are other differences, of course. Lots more. But don’t worry too much, because learning them all is difficult if not impossible. All we’re asking you to do is ensure your document’s language default is set to U.K. English, use the Oxford English Dictionary when you’re looking up words, run a spell check when you’re done and be mindful of the punctuation and date features noted here. Additionally, when you’re quoting from any English that isn’t British, you stick to the original spelling, even if it’s not consistent with the surrounding text. The same applies to the names of organisations or any other type of proper noun. In those cases, the principle of accuracy trumps that of consistency.
The Chicago Manual of Style
Finally, we use The Chicago Manual of Style for our referencing, and we use the footnote system rather than in-text citations. It’s actually a cleaner referencing system than the likes of APA, but we’ve noticed that writers sometimes struggle with it. And we get that. Formatting references can be hellacious. Still, we need you to at least get all the information on the page so we don’t have to spend too long in the fires ourselves.
It’s also important to note that we blend Chicago conventions with those of British English. Keep reading to see what we mean.
Here’s a useful website from Perdue University. The link leads to the page that introduces Chicago style, and from there, you can dig into specific formatting styles for specific sources. On the left, you’ll see a tree of menus with all those options. As you dig into the different categories, you’ll always see two formatting choices, one marked ‘N’ and the other ‘B’. The latter is for bibliographies; it’s different. You want to follow the N styles.
Let’s take a close look at some of the ones we see the most. First, let’s look at how to format a periodical reference (notice the British punctuation, which we use even when it conflicts with Chicago guidelines):
Susan Peck MacDonald, ‘The Erasure of Language’, College Composition and Communication 58, no. 4 (2007): 619.
There are different periodical scenarios, of course, so it’s important to have a look at this page.
Now, let’s have a look at books:
Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums (New York: Viking Press, 1958), 128.
There are different books scenarios as well, so it’s important to get familiar with this page.
There are too many web sources to highlight any one in particular, but given how much online research we all do, you’ll definitely want to get familiar with the formats here.
Finally, because you’ll be writing about the visual arts, you’ll want to know how to format photography and film sources. You can find the latter under the Miscellaneous Sources section. Note the visual arts format below and just fill in as much information as you can.
Firstname Lastname, Title, date, medium, height × width × depth (unit conversion), location.
And here’s what they prescribe for film, which Perdue slots in its Audiovisual Recordings and Other Multimedia sections:
Joe Versus the Volcano, directed by John Patrick Shanley (1990; Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video, 2002), DVD.
If you’ve made it this far, well, you’re reading another tired style guide joke about making it this far. But seriously, thank you. Taking care to format your submission according to the standards of your target publication shows that you’re a thoughtful and professional writer, and it really does make life a lot easier for us. We appreciate it, and we can’t wait to read your pitches and pieces.