Build Your Own Style Guide

By Mark Nichol

If you have your own blog, or you produce print or online content for a company or organization, you need a style guide.

“But I use The Chicago Manual of Style, just like you recommend,” you might tell me. Or perhaps you’re an AP Stylebook type, or you prefer some other set of guidelines to help your publication maintain editorial rigor. Good for you.

But you still need a style guide — a house style guide, that is.

Perhaps you work for a health care organization that, like many of its type, prefers to style the name of the field as one word. Enter it in your house style guide. Or maybe you’re the publications director at the G. Paul Getty Museum, and you want to make it clear to others that the institution is always referred to simply as “the Getty.” Into your house style guide it goes.

Do you run a Web site about posttraumatic stress disorder? Remind yourself, by creating an entry in your house style guide, that because site visitors are likely already familiar with the subject, you almost always use the initial form PTSD rather than spelling it out in each entry. But when you do, posttraumatic is not hyphenated.

A house style guide is the place to record whether your publication uses the serial comma (it’s much simpler to do so), whether to use periods in initials like M.D. (it’s simpler not to), or whether to omit abbreviations of academic degrees altogether in favor of a medical professional’s job title (recommended).

It’s where you document how to style numbers. (Spell out only to nine or ten, or to one hundred?) It’s where you indicate whether your Web site uses double hyphens, or codes em dashes. It’s where you explain whether headings are styled like headlines (most parts of speech are capitalized), or sentence style (only the first word and proper nouns are capitalized).

In essence, a house style guide clarifies style that diverges from recommendations of authorities like Chicago or AP, or is not covered in those resources, or provides direction when an entry in one of them is ambiguous or ambivalent.

But, you may protest, your colleagues won’t pay attention to a house style guide (staff writers are often notoriously averse to absorbing any guidelines editors may offer), and freelance writers can’t be expected to adhere to a single client’s idiosyncratic style while trying to keep others straight as well.

Both points are valid — but that’s not the purpose of a house style guide. It’s a resource primarily for editors, though any writer (or a staff member who, regardless of job title, contributes content) who demonstrates interest in the house style guide should be lavished with compliments and gifts and extolled to the empyrean. The house style guide is the authority for the organization’s gatekeepers of editorial excellence, who can count on it when their memory fails or when a colleague questions a style choice.

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11 Responses to “Build Your Own Style Guide”

  • June Freaking Cleaver

    The Chicago Manual of Style is the industry standard – your own style guide is YOUR standard. Your “rules of the road”, so to speak.

    If you ever have other writers collaborating with you, or if they’re doing a guest post, a style guide will help them keep your blog’s look and feel consistent.

    As a technical writer, the in-house style guide is one of the documents you read before you write your first word.

  • Stephen

    This is a great idea, one I never would have considered before. Thanks!

    (Also, I’ve learned a new word: empyrean. I like it.)

  • Patrice Fanning

    Agree completely. While the Chicago Manual of Style is an excellent resource, it doesn’t cover everything you need to know when writing documentation for a particular company or organisation. A comprehensive style guide is a must – for both authors and editors in my opinion.

  • don ewing

    Stephen writes:

    “As a technical writer, the in-house style guide is one of the documents you read before you write your first word.”

    Who’s the technical writer? The in-house style guide?

    Better said: “As a technical writer, one of the documents you read before you write your first word is the in-house style guide.”

  • don ewing

    June Freaking Cleaver writes:

    “As a technical writer, the in-house style guide is one of the documents you read before you write your first word.”

    Who’s the technical writer? The in-house style guide?

    Better said: “As a technical writer, one of the documents you read before you write your first word is the in-house style guide.”

  • don ewing

    Sorry Stephen, the quote should have been attributed to ‘June Freaking Cleaver’

  • Mike

    Have to agree with Stephen. I have never considered this before. A couple times a year I write large investigation reports up 150 pages. Each time I wonder if I am consistent with the last report. Now I will start documenting the style choices so I will remember from report to report.

  • cmdweb @ freewritingadvice.com

    The Chicago Manual of Style is virtually unheard of in the UK. It’s almost never used or quoted and is therefore far from being an industry standard. It is, however, a geographical standard.
    As a former technical writer, I’ve also written on the subject of style guides and their importance. As one other commentator has said, the technical writer should be reading the in-house or project style guide before they write anything.
    I also advocate the use of style guides by all freelance writers. Freelancers need to be able to capture the essence of what each customer wants and needs, and must be able to provide consistency – let’s face it, that’s what a style guide is really about: consistency. Many customers, particularly small businesses, will not have style guides and you need to be able to capture the comments and preferences as they arise. Style guides should be living documents, constantly developing and open to challenge.

  • cmdweb @ freewritingadvice.com

    Just to expand on the point about style guides being tools for the editors; from my tech writing days we ensured this was not the case. Every author had a copy on their desk and was expected to submit content that adhered to the standard. The editor was there only to ensure that the output had been through the necessary process of checks and balances, which, in aerospace manuals is a considerable amount of technical vetting. Editorial checking and amendment was minimal as a direct result of the use of style guides. Aero work is also generally written to a prescribed standard (see ATA100/200 or S1000D) which, along with heavyweight SGML and XML toolsets, really sorts the style and structure out before an editor even gets near it.
    Sorry, pet subject…

  • Mark Nichol

    Cmdweb:

    As a longtime copy editor, I’m with you. If I were in charge, staff writers would be required to recite the house style guide verbatim, with a nice, warm fire crackling just below their bare feet as an incentive to deliver a flawless recitation.

  • Gila

    “In essence, a house style guide clarifies style that diverges from recommendations of authorities like Chicago or AP, or is not covered in those resources, or provides direction when an entry in one of them is ambiguous or ambivalent.”

    I had to pause at this point in an otherwise excellent article. You violate parallel structure here, as the first two entries in the list– “diverges from recommendations of…” and “is not covered in…”– both modify “style”, while the third entry, “provides direction when…”, modifies “house style guide”.

    You could simply delete the second comma in the sentence so as to group the first two items together while separating them from the third. However, the repetition of “or” in two different contexts still seems odd. I would suggest the following:

    “In essence, a house style guide clarifies style that diverges from recommendations of authorities like Chicago or AP, or is not covered in those resources. It also provides direction when an entry in one of them is ambiguous or ambivalent.”

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