The substance of style

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Almost every institution or company, big or small, public or private, produces documents they want to look good: website content, ads, press releases, newsletters, annual reports. When these are presented well, the company looks professional and legitimate. A company’s public content is like a business person’s clothing. It creates an immediate impression, whether positive or negative.

  • No matter what kind of content is written in your company, someone has to write it, and that writer inevitably has questions:
  • Do I need permission to quote this? Can I borrow this image?
  • Is it 10 AM or 10:00 a.m.? 50km or 50 km? Forty euros or EUR 40?
  • Who or whom? James’ or James’s? Principle or principal?
  • Does the comma go inside or outside the quotation marks? or
  • How do I make a footnote for this table?

Professional writers and editors are used to keeping a comprehensive style manual on hand, whether The Chicago Manual of Style or The Associated Press Stylebook or a more specialised reference for legal, medical, or statistical writing. Choosing a preferred style guide ensures consistency in a company documents – especially if a company has more than one person creating content or teams in different locations.

Having a shared style allows for efficient and consistent writing and editing. Instead of having to make the same decisions over and over, writers and editors can refer to the same guide (along with a designated dictionary) to independently make the same styling decisions.

What’s in a house style sheet

No matter how comprehensive the major style guides are, they can’t possibly cover all the issues that are specific to your company. What’s more, most companies have a defined identity or culture that can’t always be forced into someone else’s style rules. A house style guide can provide guidelines on appropriate expression for different kinds of documents. 

Styles can be as detailed as your company likes, right down to whether dashes should have a space on either side. Your in-house style sheet might include elements like the following:

  • Company name, nickname, and logo (including spelling, capitalisation, abbreviation);
  • Official names of departments, committees, and other units;
  • Official staff titles;
  • Naming protocols for electronic files;
  • Company use of Copyright©, Trademark™, or Registered® marks;
  • Preferred formats for tables and spreadsheets;
  • Default format for dates (January 1, 2018? 1/1/18? 01.01.18?);
  • Styling for headlines and subheads in documents (bold, caps, italics); and 
  • Graphic design choices (colour palette, fonts).

How to create a house style sheet

If you’re just getting started thinking about establishing a company style, here are some steps to get you started:

1. Appoint one employee to serve as house editor. Even if style decisions are made by consensus, one person should be in charge of keeping track of them;

2. Choose a dictionary and a style guide for everyone to follow in the absence of a house ruling. The University of Chicago Press prefers the Merriam-Webster dictionaries in addition to The Chicago Manual of Style;

3. If you don’t already have a house style sheet, start modestly. List the kinds of issues and consistencies your company values most, such as those mentioned above;

4. Consider hiring a freelance editor to set up a basic style sheet. Show the freelancer the issues you’ve already identified. Give them access to sample documents and company publications;

5. Establish procedures for adding to your house guide. e.g. how and by whom issues and decisions will be decided and communicated, whether the appointed editor will make style decisions or work with a committee, how and when the house guide will be updated and distributed, whether to create templates for frequently used documents (web pages, financial reports, business letters, tables); and 

6. Train employees to use the dictionary, style guide, and in-house guide when writing and editing company materials. 

Carol Saller is editor of The Chicago Manual of Style’s online Q&A and editor of the CMOS Shop Talk blog. She is also the author of The Subversive Copy Editor: Advice from Chicago (or, How to Negotiate Good Relationships with Your Writers, Your Colleagues, and Yourself).