For smoother, faster writing, create an office style guide

I once worked at a company that wrote detailed technical proposals for bids. Everybody on the project team wrote their own sections. On the weekend before the proposal was due, some effort would be made to make the proposal read as one voice end-to-end. But usually, we ran out of time. It was embarrassing to review it with clients and see the inconsistencies and language mistakes.

It wasn’t that we didn’t care. When it came to internal memos and presentations, departments would spend too much time tweaking word usage and changing spelling and commas.

Writing original content is hard. Editing what’s already written—especially if it’s someone else’s writing—is easy. But it’s not as productive.

The office I worked in could have turned that around. We could have put more quality into our original writing and spent less time editing if we used an office style guide.

Large companies have style guides of various depths and detail to protect and maintain their “one voice”. But even small businesses could benefit. Imagine bringing on a new employee or subcontracting a piece of writing. From the get-go, that person would know not only how to refer to your products, but how to write in your vocabulary and use your standard spellings.

Having an office style guide also makes it faster for you to write too. You’ll have your standards at your fingertips and you won’t have to dig around in previous content to see how you’ve written about it before.

To create an office style guide, start with one or two reference manuals that the people in your office can all work from. Then supplement it with your own style guide that addresses your unique requirements and preferences.

Choose a style manual

Style manuals go way beyond the dictionary. They cover punctuation, abbreviations, capitalization, numerical expressions, word usage, and editing and proofreading tips. Here are three reference books on my shelf that a business would find useful:

The Canadian Style: A Guide to Writing and Editing (Dundurn Press)

Concise and to the point, it’s the standard used by Canada’s public servants. If you are going to write to government bodies and agencies, this is for you. It also has chapters on reports, minutes, and letters.

Bonus content: how to present French words in English text.

Alternatively, go on-line to the U.S. Government Printing Office Style Manual and download a chapter at a time.

The Canadian Press Stylebook (The Canadian Press)

This book opens with all the reasons why you need a style guide:

English is a fluid language, but it’s bound by complicated rules of grammar. Working reporters and editors don’t have time to research decisions on vocabulary and capitalization and grammar every time a problem arises. (Canadian Press Stylebook, 2004)

The sections on writing about sensitive subjects and the tips for writing crisp sentences that the reader can skim quickly are two clues that suggest why newspaper people write so much faster than the rest of us.

Bonus content: tips for the working journalist.

The Chicago Manual of Style (The University of Chicago Press)

Now in its 17th edition, CMOS is the bible of the publishing industry. Its comprehensiveness is a thing to behold. The forty-page  “Glossary of Problematic Words and Phrases” will even tell you in which countries in the world “billions” and “trillions” mean something different. The section “Nine techniques for achieving gender neutrality” will help anyone struggling with bias-free language.

CMOS 17 is available as a book or an on-line subscription.

On-line resources

For Internet and social media writing, check out Buzzfeed’s on-line Style Guide. It includes word usage for evolving topics, like LGBT. And it might be the only reference book that deals with profanity.

Build Your Own Office Style Guide

Once your office has chosen to follow on one or two style manuals, you need to supplement it with what’s unique to your business. Your office style guide should be as easy to read and as organized as possible. Otherwise you will spend more time looking up something when you could be writing or editing.

Create the first page by documenting your rules for using your trademarks, tradenames, and logotypes. Below it, add a section on the typefaces and colours for your print material.

Then start a list from A to Z for word usage. Add your product names showing the correct capitalization and how to express them as plurals and possessives.

Build up your list over time with your preferences and decisions:

  • Spelling and capitalization decisions, for example a.m. and p.m. vs. AM and PM
  • Terms that you want to banish from your office, e.g. “best of breed”
  • Misused words that people keep getting wrong
  • Punctuation rules, such as commas in a series and number of spaces after a period
  • Anything in the style manuals that you want to override
  • Anything in the style manuals that needs to be emphasized because it’s frequently missed

Just as the reference style manuals are updated from time to time, you also will need to keep your style guide up to date.

Build your style guide usage and updates into your business-writing workflow. You’ll find that instead of wasting time correcting problems and editing out inconsistencies, you’ll have more time to craft your message superbly and succinctly.

Photo: Ladybird Johnson’s very stylish office is preserved in its original place on the top floor of the Lyndon B. Johnson Library in Austin, Texas. (JoAnne Burek, March 2017)