Why Every Professional Services Business Needs a Writing Style Guide
Anything you write on behalf of your business is part of your company’s image. If you don’t have a writing style guide to keep track of your preferences, you risk creating sloppy, unprofessional-looking content, which could damage your credibility.
Three Ways a Writing Style Guide Simplifies the Writing Process and Improves Writing Quality
A writing style guide is a living document that includes your writing and formatting preferences and helps keep writers, editors, and anyone else involved in the writing process on the same page.
Writing style guides can help strengthen your writing in three ways:
- It reduces conflict over style and formatting preferences. Because everyone has different preferences, writers and editors are bound to disagree over style and formatting issues from time to time. Having your preferences spelled out in your writing style guide helps keep everyone on the same page.
- It shortens the writing process. Pulling out old documents to see how you wrote and formatted things in the past or consulting your default major style manual for the same rule over and over adds time to the writing process. Documenting your writing and formatting preferences will make the writing process faster and less frustrating.
- It ensures a consistent brand experience for your clients. Consistency helps build credibility and makes your brand recognizable. People often think brand consistency is important only for visual elements like logos and brand colors, but it is just as important in your writing.
Seemingly small things like using emergency room and emergency department interchangeably, styling your phone number 555.555.5555 in some places and 555–555–5555 in others, or using the abbreviation PM to mean both project manager and program manager in the same document can make you seem less credible and diminish the value of your brand.
Why Not Just Use a Major Style Manual?
Your writing style guide should be based on a major style manual. Which one you use depends on your industry niche and your preferences—more on that below.
The main reason I recommend creating a house style guide in addition to using a major style manual is this: In my 20+ years of writing and editing, I’ve never worked with a company that didn’t have writing and formatting preferences that differed from the guidance in their preferred style manual. Keeping track of those differences is important to maintaining consistency in your writing — and everyone involved in the writing process should know where to find this info.
Also, most style manuals are massive. For example, the print version of the 17th edition of The Chicago Manual of Style has 1,144 pages, and the online version of the manual is even larger. If you find yourself looking up the same rules over and over again in a book or its online equivalent, add them to your writing style guide so they’re easily accessible.
What to Include
The info you include in your company’s writing style guide will depend on the type of writing you do, but I recommend these 11 basic sections for most businesses:
- Common terms and terms to avoid. Include the company’s preferred terms and in what context they should be used. Terms to avoid are equally as important — these are often terms now considered outdated or offensive. List the terms alphabetically.
- Writing point of view. Describe how to write about the company and departments or teams within the company — e.g., Is it acceptable to refer to the company or a team as we?
- Brand voice. Add guidance about company philosophy and how it should come through in all company writing.
- Punctuation. Include guidance on whether to use the following: the serial comma, end punctuation in vertical lists, spaces around dashes and mathematical operators. Also add guidance on appropriate use of hyphens and semicolons.
- Numbers. Include preferences for when to spell out numbers and when to use numerals, phone number format, and how to treat percentages.
- Abbreviations. Include a list of commonly used abbreviations and info on how to introduce and define them. This guidance may vary depending on the type of piece and the amount of space available.
- Bulleted and numbered lists. Add guidance on how to style the lists and when to use them.
- Headers. Include info on how to style various types of headers.
- Web addresses. Include info on how to style web addresses and a list of commonly used addresses.
- Blog and social media. Keep a list of your company’s social media handles and guidance for writing blog and social media posts.
- Logo and tagline. Add guidance for proper use of your company’s logos and tagline.
BONUS TIP: If you cite sources in your writing, include a section on styling references and in-text citations.
Which Major Style Manual is Right for You?
When choosing a major style manual, consider the type of writing you do and your field or niche. Below is a list of several major style manuals and their corresponding fields or niches.
- American Medical Association Manual of Style: healthcare, medicine
- American Psychological Association Style: academics, social sciences, humanities, natural sciences
- Associated Press Stylebook: newspapers and magazines, marketing
- The Chicago Manual of Style: humanities, fiction, nonfiction, academic journals
- Government of Canada’s Writing Tips Plus: Canadian government publications
- Microsoft Writing Style Guide: technology
- New Hart’s Rules: British English academic, humanities, and social sciences
- Scientific Style and Format: science and technology
- S. Government Publishing Office Style Manual: U.S. government publications
A Little Preparation Can Go A Long Way
Although writing may never be your favorite part of your work, establishing writing standards can make the process feel like less of a chore and help you produce consistently high-quality pieces that showcase your expertise, reflect well on your brand, and resonate with your audience.