Why you need a style guide

Street sign arrow pointing to blue skyA style guide is a useful tool (and, for a professional organisation, an indispensable one) for establishing the acceptable writing style or tone of documents as well as their physical appearance.

A style guide isn’t a design brief and it isn’t a grammar primer. Such documents are valuable in their own right, but the benefit of a style guide is in setting out the acceptable, agreed practice for a specific organisation when its members put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard).

So what sort of information should be included in a style guide?

  • correct spellings for proprietary terms
  • rendering of acronyms and abbreviations
  • terms to be avoided
  • words that should be hyphenated
  • which templates to use for different types of documents
  • numbering conventions for headings
  • capitalisation style
  • caption style and content for tables or illustrations
  • punctuation of numbers

… and any other language or document conventions specific to your organisation.

Sometimes it is the most basic things that need to be recorded in the style guide. I have reviewed a document where the client’s company name was written three different ways within the space of a few pages.

Of course, the hardest part of the process of developing a style guide is to get people to follow it.

You can employ tactics ranging from persuasion to compulsion, but a style guide is more likely to be used by staff if they have had some input into its evolution.

A set of rules handed down from on high that tramples over all the existing conventions is unlikely to have much traction. That’s why a credible consultative process is advisable. It doesn’t have to be an endless to-ing and fro-ing as people argue over which words must be capitalised—just so long as everyone gets to have their say.

At the end of the process, however, someone has to make the final decision and everyone else has to abide by it.

It’s a waste of time when meetings keep degenerating into disagreements about punctuation in a list or to what extent headings should be capitalised. A clear style guide puts an end to these interminable arguments before they start.

That’s not to say that once it’s finished it’s set in stone. Think of the style guide as a document you can add to when new problems arise, but try not to make it a battleground for addressing already settled issues.

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