What is a style guide, anyway?
If you're in the communications world, you may already have an organizational "style guide" for design elements. These often specify the fonts, colors, logo specifications, and other design components that need to be consistent across all of your materials.
Editorial style guides focus on consistency of the written and spoken word. Following an established style guide like AP Style or the Chicago Manual of Style is a great starting point for any organization. Such style "giants" clearly lay out their stance on everything from serial commas to state abbreviations, and are constantly reviewing their policies on words and phrases that may need a refresh. News outlets and PR firms typically prefer to follow AP, whereas a medical group may follow the American Medical Association Manual of Style, for example. There are many lists out there that outline some of these established style guides, and they can be a helpful starting point if you're looking for a baseline.
Pro tip: Many of these guides offer a free trial if you're not quite sure you're ready to commit. This has come in handy for me, especially when I'm editing for a client who prefers a niche style guide for which I don't necessarily want to pay a year's subscription.
Beyond the establishment
OK, you've browsed through the different style guides out there, you've tried and paid for the one you like ... now you have a style guide! Right?
Actually, it's rarely as simple as that. Even if a client tells me they follow AP all the way, there will invariably be organization-specific nuances that established style guides don't cover.
Does your organization have a "the" in its name, and should that be capitalized with the rest of your organization's name? Does your CEO go by Jeff or Jeffrey in public-facing materials? What is the unique lexicon your organization uses when talking about specific issues? Are you promoting "vegan" eating, or "plant-based" eating?
A comprehensive, made-for-you style guide (in addition to the established one you may already follow) can create that much-needed clarity and consistency around the words your organization uses in its public-facing communications. Still not convinced? Here are a few more reasons why your organization needs a style guide.
1. They ensure consistency (not coincidence).
If you hear a CEO, communications associate, and creative director all using the same vocabulary when describing a complex issue, it's probably not a coincidence. Someone in their organization likely developed and disseminated a style guide, or detailed talking points, and everyone got on board. This makes editors and CEOs very happy.
A silly show I discovered during my years in the UK is called Black Books, which is about a grumpy bookshop owner, Bernard Black, who doesn't like people very much. In one of my favorite episodes, Bernard's friendly employee Manny goes to work for the enemy next door — Goliath Books, which is run by a power-hungry, overbearing manager obsessed with order. In a scene where the manager reprimands Manny for his lack of uniformity, he says:
When it comes to style guides, I'm not recommending we all wear the editorial equivalent of pastel-colored uniforms. Chances are, your organization hired you because of your unique personality, experience, and perspective. And your writing should reflect that! But I like the idea that the language we use shows what team we're on (Team Black Books, that is).
2. They set the record straight.
The way we describe nuanced issues and the way we refer to others says something not only about who we are, but what we stand for. Hearing someone use the term "a person with schizophrenia," for example, rather than "a schizophrenic," can demonstrate a lot about that person's stance on mental health issues in general. Their use of the phrase indicates that they believe people are more than their diagnoses, and that we shouldn't define anyone by the conditions they may have. (More about this in a blog post I wrote a few years back.)
These rules are important in how we speak personally, but also when speaking on behalf of our employers. Is your company one that upholds person-first language? That should be in your style guide. Is part of your mission to encourage broader adoption of a new term or idea? Are you still determined to make "fetch" happen? Definitely put that in your style guide.
3. They're easy to create.
I have a template I use when creating style guides for clients, but anyone can create a style guide for their organization. All you have to do is keep an ear out for those buzzwords and take note of certain editorial preferences.
Though this list varies a bit per client, I'll usually include sections on:
- Capitalized words
- Hyphenated words
- Job titles
- Citations (according to the APMA style guide, "citations are the bane of an editor's existence." I secretly love formatting them, though.)
- Catch phrases
- Off-limit words
- Mission statement
- Contact information
- Other "boilerplate" information
When I've worked with a client for a little while, I'll usually add to this template a running list of keywords and other tidbits like the organization's history and other "lore" that I pick up during conversations with clients. Often, this type of background information can come in handy when I'm asked to ghost-write something in the voice of the organization. So not only style, but also the content itself, can be a huge part of these guides.
A note on format: I usually create mine in Word and then share them with my clients, but if you're creating one for your organization, you could also consider Google Docs or a similar tool that allows multiple users to view the document. If you do that, though, I'd recommend that you have one person act as the "keeper" of the guide (whoever does most of your editing is probably the best person for the job), so they know what's been added or updated, when. You can also consider adding time stamps along with significant changes — e.g., "per Amy Ahn on 1/16/18, we're now referring to all cookies as 'biscuits' when editing for Bernard Black." Or something short and sweet like that.
4. They're easy to share.
As a freelance member of my clients' communications teams, I like to think I bring a refreshing sense of objectivity that comes from my third-party status. I'll often query things that sound a bit jargon-y, or that I don't think ordinary people (ahem, like me) would understand. That said, when I'm editing for a client, it's essential that I know their editorial preferences inside and out.
Coming from a position where I used to manage several freelancers at once, I know the importance of being able to send a document out for editing and know that I can trust this third party to catch all of the unique style preferences that I hold so dear. Having an organizational style guide on hand (vs. only in your head) is a great way to ensure your work is outsource-able.*
Even though many of my clients read behind my work, I believe they should be addressing queries and concerns, not cleaning up stylistic issues that I missed. Otherwise, what would be the point of outsourcing something to me? I like to make my clients' lives easier, and one way I do that is by sticking to their stylistic preferences or, when they're not sure of those, helping them create their own style guide along the way.
*Editor's query: I didn't see the word "outsource-able" in your style guide, and it's not in Merriam-Webster, but I think it's clear in this instance. I leave it to you to decide, however.
5. They're more like guidelines, really.
Every now and then, I'll query something in a document like this:
"AP Style would be to use this version of the word ... but I think it would look awkward in the context of the story. Would recommend leaving as is."
At the end of the day, it's always up to my client to accept or reject a query of mine, but I also feel it's my due diligence to point out both: a) what their indicated guidelines say to do, and b) if I think we should bend that rule, just this once, for clarity.
I also understand that style guides can (and need to) evolve. In my own work (e.g., this blog, the rest of my web copy, proposals, resumes, even emails) I try to maintain a consistent style. Even in the past year, however, I've noticed a shift in this style. I used to follow AP all the way in my personal writing, but the more I see the importance of serial commas play out in real life, the further I've been leaning away from AP (gasp)! Don't worry, I'll always have a special place in my heart — for AP and all other style guides, for that matter. For me, the most important thing is that there's a set of guidelines I can look up, follow, and (occasionally) break.
Can't get enough style? I also wrote about style guides in these posts. Check them out and let me know what you think below!