3 Tips for Producing Consistent Written Content

By Mark Nichol

There are many editorial strategies for making text easy to write, edit, and read. Here are a few guidelines for simplifying how your company, organization, or publication (even if it’s merely a personal blog) produces content.

1. Minimize House Style

“House style” refers to treatment of specialized terminology and treatment of spelling, capitalization, numbers, or punctuation that differs from the norm. Before you decide to routinely spell a word in a variant or obsolete form (for example, writing archeology instead of archaeology), capitalize generic words (“The Company is dedicated to excellence”), use a numeral rather than spelling the number out (“We have 5 guiding principles”), or go against custom in formatting punctuation (for example, employing single quotation marks instead of double quotation marks), consider whether the divergence is worth the effort—and, if so, publicize and document the decision so that all content your organization produces is consistent.

The more clear and thorough your house style is, the easier it is to maintain high-quality content. On the other hand, the less extensive and cumbersome your house style is, because there are fewer exceptions to attend to, the easier it is to maintain high-quality content.

2. Always Use the Serial Comma

Many publications follow the Associated Press Style Book’s policy of omitting serial commas. (The serial comma is the last comma in a list such as “apples, oranges, and pears.”) Unfortunately, this modest effort to simplify by avoiding an optional punctuation mark actually complicates matters: When a list contains an element that includes a conjunction (“apples, oranges and tangerines and pears”), the sentence organization is compromised, so an exception must be made, which results in inconsistency. For the sake of uniformity and simplicity, always include a serial comma, the recommendation of The Chicago Manual of Style, the handbook of record for many book publishers and other content producers.

On a related note, use semicolons for lists only when the presence of one or more commas within one or more list elements creates ambiguity, especially when one or more elements of the list is itself a list (“apples, oranges, and pears; milk and cheese; and bread”). The length of the list, and the presence of conjunctions within list elements, are not factors.

3. Capitalize Only When Necessary

Capitalize proper names only, and capitalize job titles only before names. Generic abbreviations of entity names (“the company,” “the board,” “the department”) and references to concepts (“human resources”) are not proper names (though “Human Resources” is correct as the name of a specific department). Capitalization rules about art movements, medical and scientific terminology, geological and historical eras, and other scientific or cultural phenomena can seem (and sometimes are) arbitrary, so double-check reliable editorial resources.

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2 Responses to “3 Tips for Producing Consistent Written Content”

  • venqax

    “…writing archeology instead of archaeology),…” This one vexes me. The standard in American English practice (that’s with a C, BTW) for a long time now has been to drop AEs for plain-old Es. We no longer write paediactrician, encyclopaedia, or paedophile. Likewise with our discarding of OEs. So why should archeology be an exception? The only reason I think of is the “redish” rule. That’s the one that says glamour gets spelled with an intrusive U because that spelling is more glamorous– and by that logic radishes are red, so… Archaeology is in archaeic spaelling that you haeve to dig up from the ruins– is that the idaea?

  • Agua Caliente

    Re: Serial Comma.
    “I love my parents, Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty.”
    Yes, always.
    (My sincere apologies if this is redux—cannot recall where I first saw it.)

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