What is a… style guide?

October 17, 2016 1:51 pm

Media theorist Marshall McLuhan is famous for saying, among other things, that “The medium is the message”. Essentially, that means that the type of medium you choose to communicate a message itself affects the message.

Photo credit: zappowbang The Elements of Style via photopin (license)

Photo credit: zappowbang The Elements of Style via photopin (license)

So what message does a reader or listener take away when the medium is delivered in a careless, sloppy or inconsistent manner? The impression left is likely to be that you – the writer or content creator – are yourself a careless, sloppy or inconsistent thinker, making your message questionable.

That’s part of the thinking behind the need for style guides. Basically, a style guide spells out how your organisation or publication will present the words, numbers and other textual and visual elements of your message. It’s a roadmap for delivering information in a careful, neat and consistent way.

Look, for example, at the AP Stylebook. Long described as “the journalist’s bible”, the AP Stylebook helps eliminate a lot of potentially time-consuming questions for reporters, editors and copywriters. Rather than having to decide each time whether it’s ‘e-mail’ or ‘email’, ‘No. 1’ or ‘number-one’, or ‘Somalian’ or ‘Somali’, the AP Stylebook provides clear guidance on these and many other issues. (Answers: ‘email’, ‘No. 1’ and ‘Somali’ are correct.)

Journalists aren’t alone in using style guides, either. Some professionals in the magazine world might use The Economist Style Guide, while those in book publishing tend to follow the Chicago Manual of Style. On the other hand, IT specialists who write about their industry might use the Microsoft Manual of Style, and academics and researchers often rely on style advice from the APA (American Psychological Association).

In addition to word usage and spelling, style guides can specify many other preferences, whether it’s placement of punctuation with quotation marks (generally outside of quote marks in the UK, while inside in the US), use of citations for YouTube videos and other online content, or even presentation of company logos.

Whatever industry you work in, and whatever types of content you produce, a style guide can help make your work easier. It can also ensure that the content you put out is more appealing, easy-to-understand and valuable… both to you and your target audiences.

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