A style guide is a document that sets out an organisation’s ‘house rules’ about language and formatting. It acts as a grammatically correct point of reference for everyone in the organisation who writes or edits documents.
One example of a style guide is The Chicago Manual of Style, an American English guide to writing and citation styles used in publishing. Another example is The Associated Press Stylebook for journalists.
Four reasons to have a style guide
If your organisation doesn’t have one already, why not compile one? Besides earning you serious writer or editor ‘street cred’, compiling a style guide will help with the following:
- Consistency: It not only allows consistency of language use and tone within a document, but allows consistency across different documents written by different writers in an organisation. It enables your organisation to communicate with one, consistent ‘voice’.
- Quality: Because it sets a grammatically correct standard for language use, it raises the quality of your organisation’s communication.
- Time: It saves both the writer’s and the editor’s time. Time normally spent fretting about a grammar rule or wondering about formatting can now be maximised, and spent on churning out high quality communication, time after time.
- Brand: It preserves your organisation’s brand. Do the different departments in your organisation use the same terminology when writing about your product or service? If there is a discrepancy between the terminology different departments or employees use, it could result in brand confusion within the organisation. This will, in turn, dilute the effectiveness of your organisation’s brand in the public’s eye.
Now that you’re convinced of the value of a style guide, you may ask, ‘What do I put in it?’
Six basics to include in your style guide
- Language rules: you can’t write a grammar book, but it will be worthwhile mentioning the rules that have bearing on your organisation, or clarifying rules that are regularly confused by employees. For example, if you work for a medical aid provider, you’ll need to know the difference between ‘dependent’ and ‘dependant’. If you work for lawyers, you’ll need to note that ‘comprise’ is correct, and not ‘comprise of’.
- Spelling rules: does your organisation use US English or UK English? It will determine whether you use ‘realise’ or ‘realize’, or ‘fulfil’ or ‘fulfill’. Draw up a table that shows the differences in spelling between US and UK English, and be consistent in which you use. Furthermore, you’ll need to clarify other troublesome spelling. For example, do you say ‘cannot’ or ‘can not’? Which dictionary has the last say, in your organisation, when it comes to spelling?
- Punctuation rules: do you say ‘e-mail’ or ‘email’? ‘Cooperate’ or ‘co-operate’? You’ll need to clarify these hyphen issues. Do you say ‘Internet’ or ‘internet’? Is it correct to say ‘bachelor of arts’ or ‘Bachelor of Arts’ when speaking about a degree? This is an example of clarifying capitalisation. What is the correct way to punctuate the separate items on a bulleted list? What is the correct way to punctuate a quote inserted into your text? Do you use single quotation marks, or double? Do you use the Oxford comma, or not?
- Citation: It is important to include information on how to cite sources. Do you use the Harvard style? Or do you use the MLA style? Do you cite differently for Internet sources than you do for print sources? Provide examples on how to cite each kind of source.
- Visual composition: are your headings uppercase, title case, or sentence case? Are they bolded or italicised? When you have lists, are they bulleted or numbered? Is there a line between the introductory sentence and the first bullet, or no space at all? What is your standard line spacing in your documents?
- Brand terminology: what are the standardised terms used in your organisation to describe your product or service?
These are only a few of the questions you’ll need to answer. When you draw up your style guide, it’s helpful to list the different elements in alphabetical order, or to have a detailed table of contents. You want your style guide to be as user-friendly as possible once you’ve completed it, so that you and other people actually use it on a daily basis when you write.
You can do it!
It’s a huge task, but a worthwhile one. Don’t give up. Take 30 minutes every day at work to think about what needs to be noted in your style guide, and work on it. Perhaps you can make it a team effort and draw in others who have a flair for language. Before you know it, you’ll have something in your hands that can revolutionise your organisation’s communication.
If you want to learn how to write for business, join Writers Write for The Plain Language Programme.
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