How to Build Your Own Style Guide

By Mark Nichol

I recently wrote a post advising writers and editors responsible for print or online publications to create their own style guide to supplement whichever published manual they follow, be it The Chicago Manual of Style, The Associated Press Stylebook, or a similar volume. Sensible enough, but how does one go about this task?

First, note that a house style guide is not a comprehensive compendium; it is a resource that details rules and guidelines for consistency that contradict or are not covered in other resources. That said, a house style guide can range from a couple of pages to more than a thousand. (The Chicago Manual of Style, which exceeds that latter number, is simply a house style guide that escaped from the University of Chicago Press, for which it was created more than a hundred years ago, and went viral.) The size depends on how often, and how significantly, your publication veers from default resources and how complex its subject matter is.

The first step is to select a style manual of record and a dictionary of record and to document that selection prominently in your house style guide. These publications should, with few exceptions, be the only ones of their kind that anyone who writes for your publication consults.

For example, if you use Chicago, no one on your staff should be thumbing through The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage (or vice versa). And if a writer objects to your correction of their spelling, which they checked against The Oxford English Dictionary, inform them that your publication adheres to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (or vice versa). (Exceptions include if your style guide or dictionary of record does not cover a certain issue or include a specific term.)

Most style guides resemble encyclopedias or dictionaries in their organizational scheme, presenting information according to alphabetically arranged topics. For example, a house style guide might start with the following entries and the indicated details about them:

Abbreviations (Which are acceptable?)
Acronyms and Initialisms (Which can be used without first spelling out the entire term?)
Addresses (When is abbreviation allowed?)

Then, continue through topics starting with the letters B (such as bylines), C (capitalization, for example), and so on. To populate your house style guide, read through your publication’s (or any publication’s) content and brainstorm all the issues that come up. Here are some other examples:

Cities (Which should be identified by the country in which they’re located, and which city names are sufficiently well known to stand alone? This entry might simply refer the reader to another resource, or to an appendix in the house style guide.)
Colons (Capitalize the first word following a colon?)
Company Names (Formal, as in “Microsoft Corporation,” or familiar, as in Microsoft, and maybe even Redmond from time to time?)
Cross-References (How do you refer to other content previously published in your publication?)

Entries should be clear and concise — even terse and imperative — and should include an example: For instance, a note about percentages might simply say, “Spell out percent but retain numeral form (“37 percent,” not “thirty-seven percent” or “37%”).

Remember not to get carried away replicating rules found in your style guide or dictionary of record, especially at the expense of including essentials such as whether you employ the serial comma, how you style em dashes, or whether the text following a copyright symbol is preceded by a letter space. And no house style guide should omit a section about number style (cross-referenced to related entries such as the rule about percentages shown above).

Also, don’t forget a word list. This is a record of idiosyncratic terms that don’t show up in the dictionary, because they’re neologisms or highly specific technical terms, or because they reflect variations in spelling. (For example, the founder of a publishing company I freelance for prefers some British American spellings, such as acknowledgements and grey, so those appear in the word list of his company’s house style guide.)

Some house style guides, like the ones that have become universal resources, are organized by broad themes such as abbreviations, numbers, and special treatment of terms (such as capitalization and italics), but specific alphabetic entries are more useful.

The Associated Press Stylebook goes to the other extreme, including entries for specific terms, from antiwar (to demonstrate the absence of a hyphen in that term) to “Major League Baseball” (to indicate that this term is a proper noun) to zookeeper (to show that this term is a closed compound), plus more comprehensive entries for general rules and a separate section on punctuation. A thematic organization with a word list is more manageable.

One last note: A house style guide is a living document subject to change at any time, so refrain from using a hard copy you and other users will have to mark up with changes and additions (or frequently print out after updates are made). Encourage colleagues who might actually use the document to consult an online version that you or someone else manage; you might even make it available on an intranet or on Google Docs, with read-only access for anyone not authorized to amend it.

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1 Response to “How to Build Your Own Style Guide”

  • cmdweb @ freewritingadvice.com

    Excellent post. I like the alphabetical approach – that’ll make indexing the sections easier as well.
    One of the items that you’ve touched on that I’ve found to be useful over the years, especially in a technical writing environment, is terminology and nomenclature.
    For example, do you call it a ‘check valve’ or a ‘non-return valve’ and where do you source the proper nomenclature for a component? We used to record that whatever the design guys called a part on the assembly drawing was the name we used in the parts catalogue (or catalog if the deliverable was for the US market).

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