In the corporate world, design and logo guidelines are standard. Companies and associations set up rules about how the logo may be used, for instance, or what colors are acceptable in company memos. Many organizations will just provide standard templates for spreadsheets, written documents and emails.
But what about your words? Does your organization need a standard style guide for the words in your written documents? If your publications don’t use a style guide, follow along with me for a few moments. Even presentations, advertisements and other printed materials benefit from a standard written style.
What is a style guide?
A style guide defines the way you write. It might lay out a particular writing style — loose and conversational, formal and rigid — or simply be a list of acceptable acronyms. Some style guides run to hundreds of pages, and others fit on a page or two. The important part is this: The style guide defines for your organization the important words that must be handled in the same way every time.
Who needs a style guide?
I’m tempted to say, everyone! But I’m the kind of person who gets into the details. Perhaps first I should answer the next question.
How does a style guide help me?
- A style guide makes your organization look professional.
- When everyone writes dates the same way (Monday, June 2, 2008? 6/2/2008? 06/02/2008? What about Sept. 15 or Sep. 15 or September 15? The possibilities are endless.), agrees on what to capitalize, and follows other conventions that you set out, the work of your editors is reduced.
- And your readers benefit, too. When readers have to process several different formats for the same information, you’re making them work too hard.
- Even more importantly, style guides can prevent industry jargon and shorthand from infecting your written work. Often, we know much more about our topic than our customers, technically. A style guide can decree that what you refer to in company emails as “the Widget Inc. NJSK-2300 protocol” is always called “the Widget Inc. Safety System” in your marketing materials.
Style Guides We Like
- Associated Press: The go-to for many consumer and business publications, including newspapers nationwide.
Chicago: Well suited for more formal or literary efforts or long-form writing, including books.
The Economist: The grammar nerds here love this one, though it is unlikely to be useful as a reference for other publications–it is unique.
Modern Language Association: Frequently used in scholarly publishing.
The New York Times: Yes, they really do have their own book.
All right. I’ll get one. Where do I get one?
A comprehensive style guide is a big project, but you can create guidelines that will help your organization communicate better at any time. Follow these tips:
- Start small. If you set out to re-write the dictionary, you’ll never finish. Pick the top five, or top 10, guidelines to help your organization communicate better. When those roll out successfully, consider expanding.
- Piggyback. Unless you actually are the New York Times, you probably don’t need to write your own style guide from scratch. Decide which major style guide you like the most–AP? Chicago? something specific to your industry?–and use that as a baseline for all your written work.
- Communicate. Have the right person share the information. You want your staff to view the style guide as something helpful, not a burden. So market the guide to your organization, and make it easy for them to use it. Print a cheat sheet to tape to their computer monitors. Post a PDF on the company intranet. Use examples.