Building a practical style guide
E-mail or email? BlackBerrys or blackberries? Use or utilise? I doubt whether it’s the kind of thing that keeps you awake at night. Me neither. But there are times when style matters. Having a set of guidelines, particularly if you have several authors writing your communications, is important for your business. But how do you decide what to put in and what to leave out?
- Take care of your brand. Just as using the wrong colours in your logo compromises the brand, so do variations in brand names. Include the company name, product names and brand names in your guidelines.
- Keep the audience happy – make sure the terms you use are familiar to your readers. And that the writers know what jargon and which abbreviations they need to avoid or explain.
- Cover the important things - time for example. Define whether you are using the 12 or 24-hour clock and how you express time (e.g. 17.00 or 1700 hrs).
- When there’s a right way and a wrong way, make sure you get it right. It reflects poorly on the company if you don’t. For example, blackberries are fruit, BlackBerrys are smartphones. Incorporate commonly used tricky words in your guidelines.
- Sometimes there is no wrong or right - as in E-mail or email - but inconsistency suggests a lack of attention to detail. So pick one and stick with it.
- Take care of the sensitive stuff: is it better to use “winter break” rather than “Christmas holiday”? Or “sporting” rather than “sportsmanlike”.
- Every business has its own commonly used words. It reflects poorly on the company if these are wrong. So include a short list in your guidelines.
Exactly what you put in and leave out of your guidelines depends on your business, your sector, your audience and your writers. Your business is evolving and so is the English language so your guidelines will too. Make sure the document is only as long as it needs to be, or people will find it too cumbersome to use.
If you want to create a style guide for your business, there are plenty of examples others have published that you can adapt for your own purposes. For example The Economist. Or you can get a professional copywriter to write one for you.