Created for Melt Content
Don’t be daunted by writing a style guide – just get the essentials in place, then you can add to it over time. Here’s how to get started
In a world where writing counts and words carry the personality of your company, presenting a united front to customers and prospects really matters. Consistency counts. You need to get your whole team singing from the same hymn sheet to create your company’s harmonic voice.
That’s where a house style guide comes in. This post will show you how to create a style guide by working through eight core sections. Once those are in place, you’ve got a solid foundation that you can add to over time.
Before we get started, let’s take a look at what a style guide is and contains.
It’s a living document that details your company’s written voice. Some house style guides run to ten pages and more, others just about fill a page. But all help you to keep consistency in tone, word choice, spelling, grammar and punctuation.
Ideally a company style guide will grow as it’s used. As a problem with voice, grammar, punctuation or spelling arises, you decide on the solution and add it to the guide, so everyone benefits from those hours agonising over a comma, hyphen or turn of phrase.
No. It doesn’t teach, it guides. Your company style guide should assume everyone using it already has a good command of written language, even if they don’t know all the technical terms.
Some companies arrange their style guide alphabetically, so ‘hyphenation’ could easily appear next to ‘HTML’ and ‘healthcare’ (or ‘health-care’ or ‘health care’ depending on your style). It’s a common approach, and both Reuters and the Guardian arrange their style guides this way. Alternatively, you can arrange your style guide by themes and topics.
Let’s get down to business. When you’re putting your style guide together, there is a list of key things you need to define. These are the eight elements we’ll be discussing in more detail below.
Does your company use British English, American English, Australian English or another variant? To avoid confusion later on, make the language you’re using clear right at the beginning of the overview section.
Is your company imperial or metric? It’s a simple thing, but if 30% of your writers use metric and the rest uses imperial, you set your company up for a fall. Deciding which measurements your company will use not only helps you to present a united voice but could also spare you costly and embarrassing errors. One hundred inches is very different to 100 cm.
Since Samuel Johnson published the first dictionary back in 1755, there’s been a run on them. Mr Collins, Mr Oxford and Mr MacMillan all wanted a piece of the action, and 250 years later there are many, many dictionaries on the market. As an organisation, you should choose one dictionary for everyone to refer to – either a real book-book dictionary or an online one like Dictionary.com.
Punctuation is probably the most ummed and ahhed-over element of writing, mainly because only primary-school children, professional editors and a handful of academics understand it – and even fewer care about it.
But punctuation has played a vital role in lawsuits and arguments the world over, so it’s worth getting right. That and there’s little as beautiful as a well-punctuated sentence. When writing is well punctuated, customers feel in safe hands without even knowing why.
Choose a punctuation guide, and cite it in your style guide’s overview section. Good print choices include the Penguin Punctuation Guide or the Oxford Guide to Punctuation, but you can also use online resources such as Cambridge British Grammar or the amazing guide by punctuation guru Larry Trask.
Remember that American and British punctuation differ, so get a guide for the right version.
Based on Guardian style guide http://www.theguardian.com/guardian-observer-style-guide-a
For spelling, refer to http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/british/
For general punctuation rules, refer to http://www.sussex.ac.uk/informatics/punctuation/
For international accents and symbols, use http://www.starr.net/is/type/kbh.html#map
Do you want capitals for every word in the heading? Or just caps at the beginning of every word? Or only caps for nouns, verbs and adjectives? Do you want headings underlined or in bold – or both? Should your team leave a line between the heading and the copy or not?
Questions, questions, questions. But if you have them all answered in the style guide, you’ll make your inbox considerably lighter. So decide how you want headers to look, and give examples within the guide.
CAPITALISE EVERY WORD/ Use Caps only for Nouns and Verbs
Retell article in less than a line (as short as possible)
Use strong verbs – 1- or 2-syllable words
No space between subheadings and copy
Subheadings – also keyword focussed
This is the fun bit. This is your chance to define WHO your company is. What sort of person is it? How does it talk? Decide who you’ll be when you’re writing. Many style guides use a ‘this-not-that’ format, for example:
Fun not silly
Quirky not crazy
Educated not academic
Sensible not boring
Or a this-but-that format
Liberal but traditional
Carefree but prudent
Pragmatic but adventurous
And those lists can go on and on until you are happy you have a really clear idea of who your company is. Get as many people involved in this discussion as possible so anyone who is going to be writing has ownership over the personality they’ve created.
This is a tougher one to define if you’re not a trained writer or editor, but it’s really useful if you’re able to provide it. A fairly carefree young company might want to try something like this:
Write as you talk
Use active voice and strong verbs (avoid ‘to be’ where possible)
Format as a combination of lists and copy. Avoid long blocks of writing
Keep paragraphs and sentences short
Feel free to use ‘and’ ‘but and ‘or’ or ‘so’ to start a sentence
Use nouns as verbs
Opt for simple sentences with phrases rather than complex sentences (e.g. “Taking in the view, you can mojito yourself happy” NOT “While you take in the view, you can enjoy a mojito”)
Use phrasal verbs rather than academic-sounding words (attend = go to)
A more traditional company with a sober, adult personality might try something like this:
Use ‘we’ or ‘us’ to refer to both company and the reader – in it together
Use active voice and strong verbs (avoid ‘to be’ where possible)
Use passive voice to avoid placing blame or praise (The road was closed for several hours/ The project was finished in record time)
Format as a combination of lists and copy. Avoid long blocks of writing
Don’t be afraid to use complex sentences and slightly longer paragraphs
Avoid using ‘and’ ‘but and ‘or’ or ‘so’ to start a sentence, but can be used occasionally
Stick to traditional phrasing
Use academic-sounding words rather than phrasal verbs (attend = go to)
If you have specific punctuation, capitalisation or grammar favourites, list them here. Maybe you’re a pro-Oxford comma company; maybe you’re not. Maybe you love a good exclamation mark; maybe you hate it. Here’s where you put those details. Don’t forget to remind your writers where they can find more general rules on grammar, spelling and punctuation, too.
Limit use of exclamation marks and end-of-sentence emdashes
Hyphenate pre-noun adjectives/ compounds (gap-year traveller, secondary-school leaver, BUT take a gap year, go to secondary school)
In lists use no full stops at the end of the point
Single speech marks for quotations
Double speech marks for “emphasised” words (but limit use and DON’T use for proper nouns
Use white space around N-dashes. Like this – not like this–. Also use N-dash – not a hyphen -.
Minimise use of capitals. Only capitalise proper nouns (bachelor and master Bachelor and Master, sixth form Sixth Form, university University)
no capital after : or ; or –
Write out place names (Los Angeles, not LA)
UK and USA – no full stops between letters
Regions and directions: When referring to regions, these should be capitalised and one word: Southeast Asia, South Africa, the Midwest. When referring to general directions, these should be lowercase and one word: He travelled east to St Louis
British date format 7th June 2006 (write month names in full)
Don’t use Oxford/serial comma unless to ensure meaning
Reduce to contractions (i.e. they’re, not they are)
Write one to ten in words, all other numbers in digits
Again remind your writers which dictionary you’re using in house, so they have a go-to guide. But if you’re a healthcare company, for example, decide whether you’re using ‘healthcare’, ‘health care’ or ‘health-care’. Every industry has these little nuances, but it’s things like this that really help you present a unified team to the world. Make sure you add any new ones ALPHABETICALLY when they crop up.
We all have pet hates and phrases we just don’t want to see. There are also several words that have fallen out of fashion either in the industry or in society as a whole. You know the ones. Language evolves and changes to suit the times, so make sure you’re rolling with it. Create and add to an alphabetical list of anything you don’t want your writers to use.
This seems obvious, maybe, but it’s surprising how many in-house writers get their brands and product names wrong. It’s not a surprise when you think that we so often refer to a product or project in an in-house shorthand rather than use the full title.
Add a list of all brands and products written at the end of the document, presenting them exactly as you want to see them in communication with the customer. Add new ones as they appear.
So there you have it. How to write your in-house style guide and launch your company into the world with its very own, very consistent personality.
Look at how fabulous you are! Do you remember when you last felt this fabulous? And no it’s not just down to the stylists and make-up artists. It’s you – you’ve got your confidence back.
That’s all my best friends and I wanted when we dreamed up WiggleBeautiful pants. We wanted to shed our baggy jumpers, oversize t-shirts and comfy jogging bottoms. We wanted to refind the fantastic women we’d been before school runs, fleeting gym visits, and healthy meals in 30 minutes took over our lives.
Incredibly, this idea must have just been waiting in the wings. We’ve been friends for 20 years, since school. Carol Belle is our fashion genius (she graduated from London School of Fashion), Emma Butcher is an engineery geek with an MA in clever stuff, Sarah Rowland has a degree from London School of Economics, and me, Nadine Mills, I’m mouthy and like standing in front of people.
How on earth WiggleBeautiful has taken so long to appear astonishes even us. We reckon, though, that Time needed to let our bottoms droop before it would allow us WiggleBeautiful to be born.
You want to know how it all happened?
Unexpectedly, one Friday afternoon, our husband told us to forget being mothers, wives, career women. We were just to go out and find our fun again. Almost doesn’t sound true, does it? But it is. We must have really got unpleasant to live with if even our husbands had noticed!
Granted it was all a little random, but, hell, we thought, why not? After some emailing back and forth, we decided we should go old-school. Each of us grabbed make-up bags, straighteners, favourite clothes from our youth, and we met at Sarah’s house – she has the biggest house, you see.
Hanging out in towels and drinking our £7 bottles of wine at six that evening, we realised how much we’d changed in the twenty years since school. Our kids thought we were nags, so did our husbands. Where was that gaggle of giggling, confident young women with the world – and most of the guys in the club – at our feet?
We routed through Sarah’s wardrobe and found some of the stuff we used to wear all those years ago. Some of it even fitted still. But we all agreed that our bottoms were a disaster – nothing like JLo’s at all.
Our night out ended up changing our lives. Ideas flew around the room, Emma’s formulas, calculations and drawings became prototype pants stitched and bound by Carol.
Four bottles of wine and several hours later we had all tried and tested several versions of WiggleBeautiful and we’d put together our business plan.
This is what happens when you give busy working mums a few hours off. We found a way to cut pants so they carry your bottom higher, naturally, and encourage you to wiggle that behind. They make you walk with confidence. Walk with confidence, and you feel confident. What can you do with your refound fabulous?
Don’t let life drift past. Wiggle yourself back into life. WiggleBeautiful pants will help you find the confidence to find the you you really are.
On the death of books and the deluge of digital
Burn the books. Toss the tomes. Mass slaughter of our libraries and bookshops, the advent of the e-book and the relentless Amazon romp spell the end of book magic. If you listen to any — all hail — Kindle convert, books are for losers: their pages are impossibly fiddly to turn, they’re heavy, they’re cumbersome, their print is too small, you can lose your place and you can’t store the dizzyingly demotivating 3,000+ books that a Kindle can. With claims like that, it’s no small wonder it was the #1 gift on Amazon Christmas wish lists. But, although I gave one to my dad and one to my husband, I was secretly delighted when hubby-dear wasn’t quick enough to order me one before the Christmas stampede.
Want to know why? Sure, it took me most of the morning to move my books when we relocated recently – and I have nowhere near 3,000 of them -, but it was a labour of love my bookshelves are my guilty pleasure, and there’s little chance of my turning my back on them for a clever piece of plastic. Sure, I’m tooled-up with all other writery gadgets, but I hear a wail of fear from my smellful books when I brush the Kindle that sits so smugly on the sofa. And I heed that wail. Must we take a leaf out of Noah’s book to survive the deluge of the digital? Shun the evil ones and watch them flounder and drown in their own success: build an ark, grab your books and set sail.
Ironically though, the storming charge of the digital age is our own fault. Shouldn’t we have seen it coming? Shouldn’t we have stopped it before it started? Could we have ever believed it would be so all-pervasive? I hold up my hands: since 1997, my first port of call has been the Internet for information, for communication and, now, for learning. My books often lie dormant, pleading to be referred to. I haven’t libraried in years, despite having passed hours, days, months in libraries through my teens and early 20s. Appalled by my slack support of libraries, I took my two pre-schoolers, who roamed, who perused the picture books, and who soaked up the wonder of the worlds surrounding them. Their book enthusiasm brought a tear to my eye.
But now, like a cliché from a science fiction novel, the digital monster we let loose on the world is chomping down libraries across the country. Statistics suggest that libraries are used as much as they have always been, but councils cite ‘changing times’ and ‘altering lifestyles’ as reasons to pull the library carpets out from under our feet. On the Isle of Wight, nine of the island’s eleven libraries are about to disappear, but the councils mourn the libraries’ demise enough to try and find alternative ways for citizens to get their weekly book fix using volunteers and mobile vans.
And the bookshops’ nemesis – Amazon’s brown delivery box – has stolen far more than it will ever bring to our homes. In our rush to order online, we’ve lost the joy – and the danger – of popping into a bookshop and – oops – accidentally spending £50 … again. Has anyone noticed Borders slip into the hands of the administrators? And who has been knocking down Waterstones’ closed doors? Anyone? Thanks to the digital wave, the pleasure of visiting a bookshop or library and flicking through an afternoon will soon be the stuff of family history told by a grandma, over Skype, as her grandchildren tut about her telling the same old story again. We can moan and whine as much as we like, but we did this to ourselves. Didn’t we?
Thanks to www.elizabethharmonblog.wordpress.com for the image.
Icarus: Mad Dog or Englishman?
‘Dad, I’m bored.’
Daedalus peers out from under a monocle and fiddles with a propeller.
‘Well, Son, why not tinker with these tools or, you know, if you really can’t get your inventive juices flowing, you could tidy your room.’
Icarus sneers, slides off the kitchen stool and slumps his way to his bedroom window, flicking one of Daedalus’s many prototypes off the chair. Holed up in King Minos’s palace is dull. Tidy up – pah. Bored, bored, bored. Even looking out at the ships can’t entertain him anymore. If he could play outside maybe his brain would wake up again, but every time he opens a door a feathery helmet sticks his head in and tells Icarus to ‘get back inside, there’s a good lad’.
Daedalus tinkers and makes useless prototypes to try to amuse the king again, but they mainly fall flat. Icarus drags himself across to the bed, en route, he kicks an old birthday present – a wooden mooing cow – and forces a smile. It is clever, and it is funny, but there are a finite number of times a bobbing, mooing head can really get a belly laugh. Today isn’t one of those times. Icarus ruffles through the pile, picks up a triple-ended dagger and, with a flick of the wrist, launches it at the wall. It pierces the ceiling. He decides to settle down and read a good tablet: The Man-eating Minotaur.
As the sun rises high in the sky, the rays flood in and bathe Icarus in glorious warmth. A couple of times the tablet wakes him up as it lands on his nose, but he keeps reading…
At first, he dreams he’s falling, plunging with a minotaur deep into the Underworld; he’s not scared. With the Minotaur alongside him he’ll stand a fair chance. He waves at the Minotaur, and the Minotaur waves back. It’s a long fall, so they wave again … Icarus realises that with each wave, he stops falling, so he waves more – and he’s flying. Up and up he soars, playing with the clouds and spitting at the soldiers surrounding his house. Bliss!
Again, the tablet slams his nose. The sun has crept behind a mountain and Daedalus shouts:
‘If you want any dinner, Icarus, you need to get in here and help me clear away these tools.’ Icarus rolls his eyes, but swans his way to the table anyway, fairly pleased for something to do.
The two sit, slurping soup.
‘Son, ol’ misery Minos wants me to build war machines. I’m having none of it – mooing cows and triple-ended daggers are one thing – a bit of harmless entertainment – but war machines? I don’t think so. So we have to get out of here. It won’t be long before he gets stroppy, so I’ll need your help. I thought about a wooden horse – I read it worked well for Paris – but I don’t think we’d fit in one that could also get one through the door. Any ideas?’
‘Reckon the stairs down would be a bit bumpy as well, Dad.’
Slurp. Icarus remembers his dream:
‘Wings, you say. Hmm … That could work, you know.’
He stares into his soup for a moment. And then he speaks:
‘Go get your pillow and your candle. Grab mine while you’re there too.’
‘Go on. Get a move on.’
Icarus stares on in horror as Daedalus rips the pillows to a cloud of feathers, but as he beings to understand his dad’s plan, his eyes widen in delight. To the whistle of the guards’ snores and by the light of a blue moon (you can only escape successfully once in a blue moon, after all), father and son get started.
Cue time-covering montage: they whittle balsa wood wing frames, they dab molten wax on the tips of feathers, they adhere the feathers one by one to the frames, and they fashion straps from strips of curtain with buckles made of mattress spring. As the last candle gutters out, they stand back and admire their cracking sets of wings. End time-covering montage.
Daedalus smiles. ‘Bit of a chip off the old block, you, Son, aren’t you? When we get to – where are we going to go? – we should set up shop together. I can see it now: D I Wings.’
‘Can you? Brilliant. Shall we head off then?’
Icarus strides to the window and pokes through, only to realise that wings hamper his usual exiting style. With a bit of backing and forwarding, lefting and righting and you firsting, they come up with the solution. They take the wings off. Icarus toes out on the tiles with his wings tucked under his arm, then holds his belly in silent laughter as he watches Daedalus fumble his way through the window, clinging hopelessly tightly onto every surface he can grab. Sweat dripping off his nose, Daedalus stands proud in front of Icarus:
‘Ohhh, Dad. That was great. Where are your wings?’
Crest-fallen, Daedalus turns to face the ordeal once more.
‘Give it a rest, Dad. I’ll get them. Hold mine a sec.’
As Icarus returns, he slips and knocks a tile off the roof. Daedalus grabs his arm and the two peer over the gutter to watch the tile shatter metres below. Gods be good. The two mutter quick prayers that no one hears the tile – always worth a try. And a seagull, out on his early-morning fly, squawks overhead. Prayers do work!
The escapees tweak and heave, strap and buckle into their wings. Icarus watches Daedalus fix the last bit of his harness: they both look ridiculous, but, fair play to the old boy, he’s pulled it off again.
Still fiddling, Daedalus launches into a whispered pre–lift-off check.
‘Son, these things are heavy, so make sure you flap enough to clear the water. You get water in these feathers and you’ll go down like a tonne of bricks. That said, though, we’re going to have to get a shift on, or we’ll be out in the midday sun – and you know what they say about that – mad dogs and whatnot. We can’t get too close to the sun.
With the weather patterns of the last few days, we should have till the afternoon before it rains, which means we need to fly about half a league up in order to make the most of the thermals. In which case, we ought to stick to a trajectory of … Icarus!?’
Icarus leaps to liberty and, after a moment of fuss, Daedalus flies after him. Getting used to the wings and figuring out how to fly, the two flip, tumble and turn to the crashes and bangs of panicked soldiers bumping awake as tiles shower around them and shatter on the balcony and street below. Father and son laugh out loud.
‘Two stars to the right and we’re off to …’
Icarus soars and misses where they’re off to, but bounces and rolls like a freed puppy a little way behind Daedalus.
Ten minutes later, there is less bouncing and rolling, and a bit more complaining about arm-ache.
Three hours later: ‘Are we there yet, Dad? I’m bored. Have you got anything to eat?’
Four hours: ‘I’m thirsty.’
Five: ‘Dad, I need the loo.’
Six: ‘Dad, my arms hurt and I really need the loo now. Can I get some water from the ocean?’
Sighing heavily, Icarus spots a cloud – there’s water in clouds; water he can drink – so he climbs for it, sticks his head into the cloud and takes a deep gulp. Bliss. Clouds are fun.
‘I feel the need, the need for speed’, he whoops as he hurtles at another cloud and splashes into it. Oops, cloud diving = wet wings. He flaps, but Daedalus was right: they do get heavier with water. Hm. But what’s the point of being an inventor’s son if you don’t learn a thing or two. He feels the warmth of the sun on his back. Eureka!
Icarus flaps hard towards the sun to dry his wings … as he scrambles ever upward, he basks in the rays then closes his eyes to enjoy the warmth. See, the flapping is easier. It’s like there’s nothing on his arms now. He sniggers to himself, and decides it’s clear to see who will be the brains of the little father/son business.
As he bullets past Daedalus, the last thing he hears is ‘trajectoryyyyyy’.