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What is a style guide, and do I need one?

Any organisation that writes documents will benefit from having a style guide. If you’re not sure what a style guide is, or how to use one, this article will help you get started.

What do we mean by ‘style’?

Every time you write a document you make choices about style. For example, how to spell particular words, (‘adviser’ or ‘advisor’), how to write lists (whether to start each item with a capital letter; whether to use semi colons), how to write numbers (‘10’ or ‘ten’) and how to talk about the people you work with (‘patients’ or ‘clients’).

Unlike grammar, there are often no right or wrong answers to these style questions.

Why do style choices matter?

If people in your organisation make different style choices, or individuals make different choices in the same document, an organisation’s writing starts to look inconsistent. This not only appears unprofessional, but also confuses readers. For example, if your brochure mentions emailing the Support team in one place and filling in a form for the Customer Service team in another, readers may be left unsure about who to contact.

Using style consistently sets the right tone for your organisation (whether that is casual and friendly, or formal and informative); helps get your messages across; and builds your audience’s confidence in your organisation.

What are style manuals, guides and sheets?

A style manual is a reference book that covers all aspects of style in detail. There are several available, such as New Oxford style manual or Chicago manual of style.

A style guide is a document an organisation writes to set out its style choices. If the organisation already uses a style manual, the style guide supplements this with things like industry terms and abbreviations. A style guide is usually a different document to one that explains an organisation’s brand, logo and other design features.

A style sheet is a short list of style preferences that a writer or editor creates for a specific document. If an organisation already has a style guide, a style sheet supplements this.

Where do I start?

First, find out if your organisation has its own style guide — search your intranet or ask your communications team. If it does, familiarise yourself with your organisation’s style preferences and encourage your colleagues to as well. You can also find out if your industry has a style guide. Many governments now have online style guides (like the NZ Government style guide), even if not all departments do.

If you don’t have a style guide, and want to develop one, contact me to discuss how I can help. I can also train your staff to use your style guide or create their own style sheets.

Finally, get into the habit of creating a style sheet for the documents you write. You can download my free style sheet template, adapt it to your organisation’s style preferences and then update it as you write and edit your documents.