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.