A question of style

style guideYou will be glad to know this isn’t a post about the latest trends for the ‘stylish’ chihuahua … but, I think you’ll agree, the image does illustrate a wonderful point about the dangers of subjectivity in style.

As a writer you will often find you are called upon to settle disputes, or get involved in discussions around grammar, punctuation and vocabulary. While there may be obvious cases of correct or incorrect grammar and so on, more often than not, there are grey areas. It’s those grey areas that introduce inconsistencies in written communications. Particularly if you have to keep the sensibilities of a global market in mind.

It really doesn’t matter whether you agree or sympathise with someone’s point of view. As a writer responsible for communicating your company brand, it’s important to remove all subjectivity. I am not just referring to spelling and grammar (as these are generally less subjective anyway), but more about ‘the way WE do things’ (ie, how your organisation wishes to be perceived).

There has to be a set of guidelines in place that you live and die by – regardless of your personal belief – and you have to ensure that others follow the same guidelines. It’s no good creating ‘one-off’ pieces of collateral that aren’t on brand, just to keep someone happy. In my opinion, you’re not doing your job properly if you let these indiscretions happen, and you are certainly not helping to strengthen the brand.

Be the style guru

Any self-respecting writer (and designer) responsible for consistent communications, will tell you they refer to a style guide or style manual to help standardise the writing and design of documents. A style guide also provides uniformity in style and formatting of a document. It is a means of documenting your approach to certain elements of writing style that need to be consistent.

There are various style guides available for you to refer to, but as mentioned in an earlier post, pick the guide that is best suited to your company’s core business, whether that’s academic, medical or technical. You will also need to consider whether your communications will be intended, as mentioned earlier, for a global audience, or a select few.

Some style guides are geared toward graphic design, focusing on typography and white space. Web site style guides cover a publication’s visual and technical aspects, along with text. The writing style must be consistent across all your websites so guidelines are usually published to allow more than one author to contribute. For companies with a large number of contributing authors, a style guide is essential if the finished publication is to be coherent and consistent.

Style guides may be revised from time-to-time to accommodate changes in conventions and common usage, so keep up-to-date with whichever style guide you subscribe to.

Examples of Style Guides

  • Chicago Manual of Style(CMS): If you work for an American-centric company, this is one of the most well-known, respected and referenced guides. The CMS deals with aspects of editorial practice, from American English grammar and usage to document preparation

  • Associated Press StylebookReporters and editors use this manual as a guide for grammar, punctuation and principles and practices of reporting. The AP Stylebook is considered a newspaper industry standard and is also used by broadcasters, magazines and public relations firms.

  • ISO 690This is the ISO standard for bibliographic referencing in documents of all sorts. It includes electronic documents, and specifies the elements to be included in references to published documents including the order in which the elements of the reference should be stated.

  • ACS Style Guide: A set of standards for writing documents relating to chemistry, including a standard method of citation in academic publications, developed by the American Chemical Society.

These are only examples for illustrative purposes.


Do it yourself

If your organisation does not have a writer’s style guide, then you can create one for your company– even if you are the only one that does any writing for the company. It can be as long or as short as you need.

The use of punctuation and correct grammar is well established and clear, but style is much more than just the correct usage of punctuation, grammar and vocabulary. Style can encompass many different aspects such as:

  • tone (casual, formal)
  • voice (Doctor, professional, friend)
  • preferred sentence lengths
  • layout
  • depth of treatment of a subject
  • spelling (UK vs. US for example)
  • readership considerations
  • use of abbreviations
  • accepted terminology
  • the use of symbols and numerals
  • active voice vs first or second person
  • structure
  • paragraph numbering and indentation
  • the use of headings
  • the use of lists
  • trademark or branding considerations.
  • references

Of course this is just a sample of the topics that may be included in a style guide. There are many more considerations, such as legal disclaimers, warnings, and so on. If you want to get started on your own make a note somewhere of all the points of your company’s branding that must always be in place, such as logo, tag lines and regional office addresses, or website listing. Take note of all the words that come up that people frequently debate or get wrong, and research the ‘correct’ usage first, then research the requirements of your company and audience, and see if there is a meeting of minds. Your ultimate goal here is to get numerous stakeholders to sign off on one standard.

If you would like further help or information about compiling a style guide, simply complete the form on the Contact me page. Alternatively, for some inspiration feel free to take a look at my portfolio.

Finally, don’t be surprised if this is a project that takes six months to complete. Getting your European colleagues to agree with the US contingent is a little like working in the United Nations sometimes – just persevere and keep negotiations peaceful.

“It really doesn’t matter whether you agree or sympathise with someone’s point of view. As a writer responsible for communicating your company brand, it’s important to remove all subjectivity”

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