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Do I need a style guide?

October 17, 2021

A client recently asked me if they should have a corporate style guide and whether I could help them with that. They’re a small consulting company, with probably fewer than 30 employees. They write a LOT of reports.

Below is a summary of my response to them.

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I strongly recommend that every company of more than a few people has an in-house style guide, especially if they’re doing a lot of writing. Plus a standard dictionary they use for general terms, and possibly a specialist dictionary for terms used in their industry. Together, these save you from answering questions all the time about whether certain terms are hyphenated or capped, whether to use indents (not for business writing), double spaces (never!), etc. The ‘I’ve always done it like this because my Year 5 teacher told me so’ method of writing for corporate reports etc. is NOT a valid style guide. Times change, language changes, and there’s a good chance the Year 5 teacher got the ‘rule’ from their Year 5 teacher, who got the rule from their Year 5 teacher and so on.

Most in-house style guides are based on an official published style guide, either for the industry, a professional body, or for a publication (e.g. in the US, they mainly use the Chicago Manual of Style or AP for general works). Most style guides will list the dictionary that they base spellings, hyphenation etc. on. In Australia, that’s typically the Macquarie Dictionary, and I would suggest that you take out an annual online subscription to it—it’s pretty cheap, and you don’t have to have the very weighty tome on your desks. I use my Macquarie subscription EVERY day; if it was the hard copy, I’d rarely open it. (https://www.macquariedictionary.com.au/shop/home/?category_selection=True#subscriptions)

In Australia, we have the Australian (government) Style Manual (ASM) that many corporate/industry/professional style guides are based on—it’s available for free online and was recently (2020) updated from the previous printed edition (2002): https://www.stylemanual.gov.au/. There’s also AMOS https://stylemanual.com.au/contents/introduction-amos, which focuses mainly on scientific writing (I’m not a subscriber to AMOS so I don’t know much more about it). AMOS helpfully lists where their guide differs from the ASM: https://stylemanual.com.au/sites/default/files/amos-quickguides-dta_vs_amos-0122dec20.pdf

I’ve created a style guide for [name of corporation]’s health, safety, and environment documents (not shared for client confidentiality reasons). For other clients, I use their in-house style guide for the documents I edit for them. In addition, for some clients I also create a style sheet to go with their edited document that details the choices I made for THAT document that aren’t covered by the style guide. NOTE: A style sheet is specific to a SINGLE document, whereas a style guide applies to ALL documents produced (for example, the style guide might say no apostrophes in geographic names and give a couple of examples, but the style sheet might list all the geographic names used in that document).

It takes a while (several months on and off) to develop a style guide and there’s a lot of back and forth between those involved to nut out and come to agreement on what ‘rules’ you want to enforce (remember, there are no real rules, just traditions and conventions—it’s a guide, not something set in stone). There should only be ONE point of contact in the company for whoever develops your style guide. That contact person discusses style guide issues in meetings with others in the company and relays the decisions back to the person developing the style guide. Be warned—discussions can get HEATED!* (yes, I’ve been there, done that!) And you’ll be surprised how passionate some people are about commas, dashes, and semicolons! And spaces… (all those rules from the various Year 5 teachers over various generations and education systems will come spilling out).

You also need to decide whether you want your style guide to be fully searchable online (as per the ASM), or a printed guide (e.g. PDF) available online. If fully online, that adds another (expensive) layer to the mix as the website for it has to have full text search capabilities and a navigable table of contents.

So, short answer – yes, I can help you develop a style guide, but you have to do a lot of groundwork at your end before you start thinking about producing a document. You need to decide:

  • what has to go in it (I’d recommend only variations from the standard ASM, for example; for scope, use the table of contents from the examples I’ve attached as a guide [not attached to this blog post, of course])
  • what your corporate (not personal) decision is on all these things, then start noting those decisions for whoever prepares your style guide.

Once you send your notes and decisions to whoever is developing the style guide, they’ll come back to with lots of ‘what about?’ scenarios that you’ll need to make further decisions on. You can save yourself a lot of time and therefore money by sticking to a standard style guide and ONLY using a in-house guide for exceptions/variations or to summarise what’s in the standard style guide.

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Further to this, many style guides, especially those from professional bodies, may include a list of terms and how to write them. In mining/resources/geology, do you write ‘down hole’, ‘down-hole’, or downhole’, and does the word form vary depending on whether you’re using the term as an adjective or a noun? (for an example of a terms list like this, see p50 onwards of the Society of Petroleum Engineers Style Guide: https://www.spe.org/authors/docs/SPE_Style_Guide_2019.pdf). Having a list like this in a style guide, or as an appendix to it, saves a LOT of time for those who are doing the writing, whether they are experienced writers, or just new to the company or industry.

* Some 15 years ago I was working as a technical writer for a software company. They had several programs that they’d developed and were about to start marketing, but there was NO consistency in how they named one particular program. Let’s call it ‘Jet Forms’ — was it ‘Jet Forms’, ‘JetForms’, ‘Jetforms’, ‘Jet-forms’, ‘Jet-Forms’, ‘jetForms’, or any other variation on this? Between the marketing people and the developers and the website content people, I saw almost every variation you could imagine for just this one product name! I raised the inconsistency in a meeting as I had to document this product and thus use the name hundreds of times, and said we HAD to make a firm decision on what to call it so that EVERYONE used the same term to avoid confusing our customers. We had 8 people in that meeting (2 of whom were the owners of the company), and I couldn’t believe they spent an hour discussing it! It cost the company 8 hours of wages while we haggled over a single word. And no, some 15 years on, I can’t recall what they decided, but I certainly recall the long discussion that was a waste of time and money when just one of the owners should have said, ‘It’s xxx’, and we’d have been done.

One comment

  1. And if they specify a font, make sure they actually have a licence for it. We’ve just put together some software based on a companies style guide, and they don’t actually have a licence for their nominated font



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