Three Essential Elements of a Writing Style Guide

April 15th, 2015     by ddeal    

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Photo source: Wikipedia

Your brand has a publishing style even if you don’t realize it. The Whole Foods Whole Story blog is personal and conversational. The Red Bull Bullevard strives to be punchy and cheeky. I was recently reminded of the importance of style when I read “Holy Writ,” a passionate The New Yorker article about copy editing and writing from Mary Norris, who has been a query proofreader at the magazine for more than 20 years. Her article underscores the power that words retain in the era of Snapchat and Instagram.

With knowing, often wry prose, Norris reflects on a career in which she has checked the work of many esteemed The New Yorker authors, such as John McPhee, whose writing was so immaculate that reviewing his work was a breeze. She also reflects on the niggling quirks of modern-day writing that continue to cause debate and consternation among anyone who cares about words — such as whether a house style should permit or eschew the serial comma, or the third comma in a series.

She falls squarely in the camp of serial comma supporters. “I’ve gotten used to the way it looks,” she writes. “It gives starch to the prose, and can be very effective. If a sentence were a picket fence, the serial commas would be posts at regular intervals.”

I agree. When I was in journalism school, I glumly went along with the prevailing journalistic style of omitting the serial comma even though the missing third comma forced my writing along faster than I wanted. But the moment I graduated from college and went to work for a book publisher, I practically clicked my heels as I fled to the comforting embrace of the serial comma, The Chicago Manual of Style as my witness. Years later, I would also stop using two spaces after the period when the common style of the digital world took root — a decision that made me feel like Mad Men’s Roger Sterling growing sideburns and wearing a plaid jacket as the 1960s gave way to the ’70s.

There was a time when an article like Norris’s would have appealed to writers and copy editors of a distinct literary set — the tweed-jacket-wearing “professionals” who, like me, earned their stripes mastering The Associated Press Stylebook or The Chicago Manual of Style while gaining degrees in journalism and English en route to careers in journalism or book publishing.

But those days are long gone. A whole new breed of publisher has emerged — the brand that creates its own ideas and the everyday citizen who blogs. As a result, an article such as “Holy Writ” has a wider, and more diverse, audience: the blogger serious about relying on writing to create a one-person brand; the chief content officer in a Fortune 500 company; or perhaps an ex-journalist who writes white papers and blog posts for a corporation. The brands that are really serious about acting like big-time publishers realize they have an obligation to their writers (whether in-house or freelance) to guide them with an understanding of their business’s own house style.

I have had the good fortune to work with some of those businesses to create style guides that are every bit as important to their brands as The Chicago Manual of Style remains today for book publishers. In my experience, a good style guide goes beyond addressing questions such as the way possessives should be treated. A corporate style guide should show writers how to be engaging, answer usage questions, and identify common mistakes that can mar good writing. Here is what I mean:

  • Show how to be engaging: a style guide should spell out the elements of engaging writing, such as sharing relevant ideas and asserting a point of view. More experienced writers might not need this kind of guidance, but many corporate writers will require it, especially if they are just dipping their toes in the world of blogging. Coaching writers on engaging writing also means rallying them around a desired writing style. Is your brand authoritative and academic like Harvard Business Review, or edgy like Vice? In defining the writing style, your guide should provide insight into your audience: who they are, how they think, and how your writing should connect with them.
  • Answer usage questions: usage covers the mechanics of writing, including word choice, terminology, capitalization, and punctuation (including the all-important call about the serial comma). Some brand publishers simply defer to an outside resource such as The Associated Press Stylebook for all usage questions, but sooner or later you will find some crucial ruling in someone else’s style manual that just doesn’t feel correct for your own brand.
  • Discourage writing demons: here is where language nerds have a chance to call out every sin of bad writing that they have endured throughout their lives, such as mistaking its for it’s or incorrectly writing comprised of. An effective style guide collects the most common writing demons and casts them into a purgatory where all corporate bloggers and Website writers are forbidden to enter. But a writing demons section should not come across like the stern scold of a schoolmarm. A style guide should help writers, not browbeat them.

A style guide will yield many benefits. Less experienced writers will understand how to write better prose and avoid writing demons. All writers, whatever their level of experience, will appreciate receiving ground rules about your corporate brand style. Editors will have a tool to help them guide the judgment calls they need to make.

Moreover, your employees will be on the same page when they represent your brand with words. Your corporate blog will benefit from a reasonable amount of brand style consistency even as your writers develop their own individual voices. Most importantly, your audience will benefit by reading consistently good writing from your brand.

If you have yet to create a corporate style guide, why not start now?


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  1. 3 Responses to “Three Essential Elements of a Writing Style Guide”

  2. By Roger Wong on Apr 17, 2015 | Reply

    David, your post couldn’t have been timed any better in my world. I’ve been working on our in-house style guide for my employer. We’re constantly cranking out collateral and even dipping into periodical publications and a style guide is long overdue in this company. I bought the AP Stylebook, Chicago Manual of Style, and The Business Style Handbook. I started researching other style guides. The one shining example I came across has been the MailChimp style guide: http://mailchimp.com/about/style-guide/

    It’s simple, well-written, and easy to digest. You can be sure ours will be inspired by it. 🙂

  3. By ddeal on Apr 17, 2015 | Reply

    Thank you so much for commenting, Roger — The Chicago Manual of Style can be an intimidating tome! I am glad you mentioned the availability of other style guides online. Just a few days ago, I was trying to get some alternative opinions on a style matter and also did some online research, too, including a review of the BuzzFeed style guide (http://www.buzzfeed.com/emmyf/buzzfeed-style-guide#.aqznV85Mq). I love the MailChimp example because the style guide itself reflects the desired MailChimp voice and tone. Thank you for sharing that example — it’s excellent.

  4. By Brenda Greene on May 4, 2015 | Reply

    Interesting article. As authors of The Business Style Handbook, we have been advocating corporate style guides since 2002 (when the first edition of our book came out). Stylebooks make everyone’s life easier – especially for nonprofessional writers. On another matter, though, we agree with the editors of the AP Stylebook. We do not think the serial comma is essential. These commas tend to slow the writing (and reading) process down (and they also create inconsistency because most nonprofessional writers are not familiar with them). Speed matters in the digital world, so we don’t think the serial comma will stick around that much longer, except in the academic world. — http://tinyurl.com/o3ehgs8

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