How to… develop a style guide

October 25, 2017 6:30 am

Do a Google search for ‘how to develop a style guide’, and you’ll find tens of thousands of results. Rather than spending hours clicking links and browsing through various sites, you can save a lot of time by starting with a proven resource: an existing style guide.

As we’ve covered in the past, a style guide is designed to provide your organisation with a roadmap for clear, consistent communication. And—whatever your organisation does, whatever types of content you produce—you’ll likely find a useful, ready-made model to start with in one of several standard style guides aimed at different audiences.

For example, if you target a general-interest audience based primarily in the US, a good starting point will be the AP Stylebook. First issued by the Associated Press in 1953, the AP Stylebook is now updated annually and available online and via a mobile app, as well as in spiral-bound paperback form. For a slightly more formal style, there’s also the Chicago Manual of Style.

On the other hand, if your content tends to focus more on a UK/European audience, you could choose either The Economist’s or The Guardian/Observer’s style guide as a jumping-off point for your own in-house manual. And if your audience is technical or scientific, your options can include guides from Microsoft, the IEEE or the American Psychological Association.

Make it your own
Whichever style model you begin with, how do you go about making it your own? Experienced editors recommend kicking off with the style issues that have dogged your organisation most in the past. Are there certain types of corrections your in-house copy team regularly must make? Do company writers and freelancers repeatedly ask the same questions about preferred spelling or capitalisation conventions? Is there any unique rule or guideline you always apply during a final edit of marketing materials?

During her presentation on ‘Developing a House Style Guide’ at the 2016 conference for the American Copy Editors Society (ACES), Megan Rogers—communications assurance specialist for the National Court Reporters Association—said organisations should follow several guidelines when developing their own stylebook:

  • Decide which resources (other style guides, dictionaries, in-house style sheets) to start with and use as a guide
  • Choose someone to be in charge of the process
  • Involve your writers and editors
  • Focus on “unique specifics, deviations or missing pieces from primary guides, hard-to-remember rules”
  • Make sure your final stylebook is easily accessible to those who need it, and re-evaluate your guide on a regular basis

Throughout the process, also keep in mind why you’re developing a style guide in the first place. Ahead of The Guardian style guide’s 75th anniversary in 2003, then-assistant editor David Marsh wrote this:

“A style guide should be much more than a list of grammatical rules, enforced by what Steven Pinker calls ‘language mavens’. Rules change, and many (for example, those forbidding so-called split infinitives or constructions such as ‘hopefully it will be fine tomorrow’) are baseless. We follow a style guide to be consistent, coherent, and to make fewer mistakes, but above all because the style of a newspaper should complement what it stands for—in the way we write about such issues as gender, race, and disability, and the respect with which we treat those we write about.”

Language changes all the time, as Marsh noted. What’s important is making sure that how you use language reflects your organisation’s priorities and values as well as possible.

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