In the last article, we talked about AP and Chicago styles and the differences between the two.
However, many companies choose to create a customized style guide to reflect their own preferences and voice.
When working with a company for the first time, ask if they have a customized style guide. If not, this is something you could potentially get paid to create for them.
There are four main sections in a company style guide:
- Style Manual — Most companies will use either AP or Chicago as the basis of their guide. This is the first thing a company should identify. This is the default style, if particular usages aren’t customized in Section 4 of the guide.
- Dictionary — There’s a variety of dictionaries, including Merriam-Webster, Webster’s New World, American Heritage, Oxford English, and more. Each of these titles has multiple editions. So a company style guide should identify the title and edition of the dictionary being used as its reference. Ex., Merriam-Webster, sixth edition. This will be the resource for proper spelling, if particular spellings aren’t customized in Section 4 of the guide.
- Exceptions — This includes words or phrases that the company’s industry may use differently than is listed in AP or Chicago style. This may include acronyms, abbreviations, hyphenated words, etc.
- Customized Style — The most important part of a company’s style guide, this is where particular usages of words, spelling, abbreviations, etc. are identified.
Create a customized style.
There are 11 areas to be addressed in developing a customized style. In this section, anything that differs from the AP or Chicago style chosen will be explained. After describing the preferred usage, always provide examples.
- Tense — is the past, present, or future tense preferred?
- Voice — when is it acceptable to use a passive voice?
- Point of view — should the company be referred to in the first (I, we) or third (it) person?
- Include a list of jargon most often associated with the company or industry, along with a more conversational or user-friendly way to say the same thing.
- How are people’s titles handled? Are they always capitalized? Never? Or in certain instances?
- Are there certain terms that should be capitalized within a sentence?
- How are books, magazines, movies, and TV shows handled?
Even though punctuation is often determined by the company’s selection of AP or Chicago style, it’s helpful for writers to have a handy reference in the customized section. Areas to focus on include:
- Apostrophe — as we discussed in the last article, is the apostrophe “s” or just the apostrophe used for nouns that end with an “s”? Spell this out for the writers.
- Colons and Semicolons — when should they be used? Are the words following the colon or semicolon capitalized or in lower case?
- Commas — is the Oxford comma being used? (See the previous article for an explanation of the Oxford comma.)
- When should numbers be spelled out vs. written as numerals?
- How should numbers be expressed at the beginning of a sentence?
- How should time be written?
- Years — when giving a range, does the second year include all four numbers or just the last two? Is it 1980-1995? Or 1980-95? What about when the range covers two centuries — 1995-2005?
Should writers use the ampersand, percentage, or pound symbols? Or should they spell out these words? If symbols are acceptable, include a list so writers know exactly what the symbols mean. For example,
- Does # = pounds or hashtag? Does it mean both? If so, explain this for the writers.
- % = percentage
- & = and
- Headlines and subheads — are they in all caps, title caps, or sentence caps?
- Use of bold and italics — specify when these should be used.
- Hyperlinks — how should writers select the text that will be hyperlinked?
- Common Errors and Company Preferences
Include anything that editors are commonly correcting. For example,
- T-shirt or t-shirt?
- Is website/web site one word or two? What about keyword/key word?
- Ensure email addresses have the “@” symbol, not a typo with “2” or “w.”
- Common Abbreviations
Every industry and company has certain words that are typically abbreviated. List these.
If writers are involved in selecting images for their copy, include instructions for:
- Selection of photos
- Sizing the photos
- Photo credits
- Creating captions
- Design Elements
If writers are involved in design or need to specify design instructions, include information for:
- Color scheme
- Font usage
- Logo usage
A company style guide is a living, breathing document. It’s not written once and then finalized. Each time you work on a company’s project, you may find things to add to the guide. If you’re responsible for updating the style guide, you can add to it as needed and share it with the company monthly or quarterly. If your editor maintains the style guide, share your suggestions following each project.
This style guide will help the various people writing for a company be more consistent in the copy they produce.
Writers who have access to and use a company’s style guide usually produce work that is “cleaner,” that requires less corrections and revisions by the editor. This can help the writer secure more of the company’s projects.