On only two scores can The Economist hope to outdo its rivals consistently. One is the quality of its analysis the other is the quality of its writing. – The Economist Style Guide
It doesn’t matter if you’re a blogger, run a company website or work for a mainstream publisher, if you want to make a professional impression you ought to be using a style guide.
There is very little that ruins a piece of writing more for a reader than inconsistencies and errors and a style guide is one of the best ways to create a coherent and consistent site that is easy to read.
Having a style guide means that every time time you use the words “internet” or “email” they are spelled the same way, that titles are capitalised in the same way and, if you include layout issues in your guide, every line is the proper size.
Using a style guide reduces the chances of errors and makes it easier to produce clean, consistent content, which gives your writing a professional edge.
What is a style guide?
A style guide is simply a set of rules and guidelines to ensure consistency across a publication. It usually includes grammar guidelines but can also include layout and graphic rules.
The Economist Style describes these as “arbitrary rules”, not because are useless but because there is very often no absolute right or wrong when it comes to language. One writer may prefer to use American spelling, another British spelling. One website may prefer “Internet” over “internet” while others may prefer the opposite. A style guide is simply the statement of one publication’s (or writer’s) choices. What really matters is the consistency provided by the style guide.
Why do I need a style guide?
A style guide makes your work easier. It provides rules that will speed up writing and editing and reduces the time spent debating language issues, freeing you up to focus on the real issue: the content of your writing.
A style guide also ensures that there is a sense of coherence across your website. Writing is a lot like being an architect and designing a building: in most cases you want a consistent style throughout your building or your visitors may start to feel uncomfortable.
A style guide is also valuable is you work with a team of writers and editors as it helps everyone involved to work towards a common style. It also makes it easier to introduce new members to your team.
What goes into my style guide?
Some of the things your style guide could (and probably should) include are:
– Spelling conventions (do you favour British or American spelling?);
– Common problem words (email, e-mail or Email; Website, website or web-site?);
– Jargon limits (specialist industry publications will likely allow more jargon, generalist ones not so much);
– Punctuation rules (how to format lists, quotations and hyphenation preferences);
– Preferred lengths for headlines, introductions, cross-heads etc.;
– Styles for website addresses;
– Spelling for problematic words and names (Moçambique versus Mozambique, for example);
– Date formats (5 June 2011 or June 5, 2011?); and
– Capitalisation rules (Department of Education or department of education?).
The potential list of style guide entries is endless and depends on the particular publication and the scope of the work. Take a look a some of the guides below for other ideas on what to include in your style guide.
Where do I start?
If you’re a one-person blog or a small news operation it may be worth adopting someone else’s style guide for now. There are already many style guides published in book and online form, including the indispensable The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White which can be found online or bought in printed form. There is also the excellent Economist Style Guide, The Chicago Manual of Style, the widely used The AP Stylebook, the Guardian’s Style Guide and the BBC News Styleguide. A longer list of style guides can also be found on Wikipedia.
Obviously, using someone else’s style guide may not meet your exact needs. The Economist style may too formal for your blog, while Strunk and White’s may be too old fashioned. Wired’s Principles of English Usage in the Digital Age may be closer to your needs (although a bit dated now). When you have a better idea of your own preferences it is worth developing your own style guide. This doesn’t have to be as onerous as it sounds and even a short style guide is better than no guide at all.
One useful strategy is to keep a supplementary guide in a simple text file on your computer. When you’re writing and come across a new word or phrase on which you have make a decision, add it to your list so that you don’t have to repeat the process. Over time this can can be expanded to whatever size meets your needs and added to your main guide when you have the time.
If you’re serious about your writing career do yourself the favour of using a style guide. Not everyone will notice your efforts but those that do will appreciate them:
Most listeners will not be offended by, or even notice, bad English. But many will notice and will be offended. The first category will not be offended by good English, even if they don’t appreciate it. The second category will be appeased and will be less likely to switch off or write letters of complaint which some poor unfortunate person will have to take time and trouble to answer. – BBC News Styleguide