When I studied journalism at the University of South Australia in the late 80s/early 90s, one of the compulsory text was The Elements of Style by Strunk and White.
It was my introduction to style guides and an early lesson in the value of having a touchstone when it comes to … how you write stuff.
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you may know that – while I can write – I don’t always get it right when it comes to grammar. I don’t understand conjunctions. I don’t understand clauses. Just reading those words makes my eyes glaze over. I do understand the active voice. And I understand short sentences.
So this isn’t a post from your favourite grammar Nazi.
This is a post about the value of style guides in organisations.
Most organisations I’ve worked with have a brand guide. That’s the volume that prescribes your official font, official colours, official logo, and placement of that official logo. It’s all very official.
An editorial style guide is a rare beast.
What does it do?
It helps guide your organisation when it comes to writing. And if you’re in corporate communications and your role includes writing the annual report, newsletter articles, web articles, media releases and more, then a style guide is a very useful tool indeed.
Your style guide will outline how you write:
- the organisation’s name, including shortening the name and any acronyms
- titles within the organisation including capitalisation
- committee names, team names, and project names
- eg, is it the Widget Committee or the Committee for the Building of Widgets or WC?
- Numerals within sentences; the convention is that numbers before ten are written out (one, two, three) and above 9, you begin to use numerals – but that’s up to you.
When it comes to media releases, the plot thickens.
Do you write in the first person? Is it “Spokesperson said” or “Spokesperson says”? Do you have a spokesman or a spokeswoman, perhaps? How do you include the person’s title in sentences? What tense do they speak in?
- Chief widget maker Sandy Sanderson said
- Or Sandy Sanderson, Chief Maker of Widgets, says …
Your style guide helps protect your brand. It maintains consistency and professionalism when it comes to communicating with the rest of the world. And boy, is it handy for your communications team – internal or external agency.
One organisation I previously worked for had an admirable, detailed style guide which included references to place names, ethnicity, gender and more. This can be particularly important when you prefer to write in a way that would not offend.
There are some advocacy organisations which have produced helpful guidelines that can be referenced in your own style guide.
Monash University’s Inclusive Language guide
Australian Network on Disability, Inclusive Language guide
If you’re looking for further inspiration, of course news organisations have style guides that are integral to how they work. The AP Style Guide is the so-called “journalist’s bible”. For some media outlets, the style guide is not so readily accessible while others are there in all their glory – the BBC Style Guide has sections including Names, Religion, Numbers and Military. You could spend hours there .. if you like that sort of thing.
Don’t have a style guide in your organisation? Don’t feel like you have to reinvent the wheel. You could:
- Make a recommendation that you adhere to an existing style guide (eg, a publicly available news organisation or university style guide)
- Adhere to an official dictionary like the Macquarie Dictionary, and then agree on a few common principles about titles, numbers and so on – your guide could be just one page. It is better to have a short style guide than no style guide at all.
Again, style guides form part of your brand. They project and protect your image. It’s a fundamental tool of professional communications and worth investing time in.
Does your organisation have a style guide? Or did you take part in developing one? I’d love to hear about it in comments below …