Most organisations have an idea of how they want to be portrayed to clients or the public. They will have a brand and know what their values are.
With many people all creating writing on behalf of an organisation, including freelance copywriters or editors, it would be difficult to be consistent across all communications without a reference tool.
Creating and using a writing style guide makes an organisation look professional, ensures clear communication, and creates a cohesive brand.
A client may not consciously recognise that there is consistency in the writing style choices, but they will notice if there is not.
What is style in writing?
Style doesn’t just mean the way the content is written – whether it’s formal or informal, or persuasive or narrative – it also includes the grammar, punctuation, spelling and word choices that are used.
Some words can be spelled in more than one way. And there are many choices for grammatical rules, such as whether to use a dash or a colon, or whether the use single or double quotation marks. Numbers can be spelled out or written as numerals, and dates can be written in various ways.
There may be words that an organisation does not want staff to use, or words that must be used for brand reasons, clarity or respect. For instance, is ‘accounts’ just another name for ‘the Accounting and Finance Department’, or is it referring to a team within it, like ‘the Payroll Division’? Or is a particular word preferred to show inclusivity.
These are all examples of the writing style that an organisation uses to present itself to the public, as well as for internal communication.
Why you should use a style guide for your organisation
Having a style guide specific to your organisation provides all those writing on behalf of the organisation, from staff to freelancers, with a reference tool.
Here are several ways that a style guide makes sure that everyone achieves clear, coherent, consistent communication – from blogs published by your marketing department through to your annual report.
In the same way as marketing and brand tools need to be consistent so that the clients receive the message or the feeling that the organisation wants to portray, the writing style also needs to be consistent.
A style guide achieves consistency when
Helping your readers understand the message
Inconsistency can confuse your readers. If there is no consistency, it can be hard for your readers to understand the message – and worse, frustrate them.
Setting the tone of your organisation
Most organisations recognise that communication with clients and the public is important. Each organisation will have a certain way they wish to portray themselves with their branding, and part of this will be in their style of writing.
Should the writing be formal and informative, or casual, friendly and direct? Should the tone vary depending on the context?
Preventing offensive or insulting language
Sometimes a word choice may be offensive or insulting. Including preferences for words used for disability, inclusiveness and diversity provides your employees with a reference, and helps prevent them unwittingly using language that alienates your readers.
Eliminating jargon and idioms
To ensure writing is clear and readable, a style guide provides guidance on using plain language techniques. This can help prevent meaningless, wordy sentences, or word choices that are not appropriate for the readers.
What does a style guide look like?
A style guide can be a few pages or 100 pages, and sets out the grammar, spelling, punctuation and word usage choices that should be used in all communications by an organisation.
The style guide also describes the preferred tone of any writing that represents the organisation, and the values of your organisation upholds that should be reflected in any communications.
It should be easily available to all staff and freelancers as a reference for when they are writing on behalf of your organisation.
It should be distributed in a format that can’t be edited, such as PDF, so that only one or two people have control of any changes. It should be updated periodically so that language choices are up-to-date and reflect any new issues.
How to create a style guide
There is no need to think about every type of grammar point your organisation may encounter, as they have already been studied for the different variations of English.
There are several style guides for New Zealand English that you can use a basis for your organisation’s style guide.
By using one of these style guides as a basis, you can be sure that the style choices are consistent with New Zealand English, which is what your readers will expect. Of course, if you are writing for an international audience, then you will need to decide if you want to stick to New Zealand English or if your readers prefer US, Australian, British, or another English.
As there are different style choices between and even within these guides, your organisation’s style guide will need to specify which one to follow, and set out clearly the things specific to your organisation.
It’s also important to include style guides for accessibility and inclusivity.
What to put in your style guide
The list of what to include is endless and will differ between organisations, but here is a start.
Tone and values
Language – spelling choices
Here is a free template that you can use for your organisation's style guide. Put your logo on it and make it yours.
If you are writing a style guide for your organisation and this all sounds too overwhelming, I can help.
I am an editor and plain language consultant based in New Zealand. My business, Clearlingo Editing and Proofreading, caters to all writers of business reports, non-fiction books and cookbooks. I can discuss with you what your organisation needs and how I can help.
For more information on how I can help you make your writing shine, please contact me.
I would love to hear from you.
Marja Stack is an editor and plain language consultant based in New Zealand. She is the owner of Clearlingo Editing and Proofreading, which caters to all writers of non-fiction books, business publications and cookbooks. For more information or enquiries on how she can help you make your writing shine, please see her website.
- What is plain English?
- Why you should use plain English
- How to write in plain English
New Zealand English Series
- NZE: How to use a semicolon
- NZE: The 'singular they'
- NZE: How to use italics
- NZE: How to write numbers
- NZE: How to write abbreviations
- NZE: How to punctuate dialogue
- NZE: hyphens, en dashes and em dashes
- NZE: How to write times and dates
- NZE: Possessives
- NZE: Is our spelling different?
- NZE: Burned vs Burnt
- NZE: Using Māori words in English text
- NZE: -ise vs -ize endings
- NZE: Single or double quote marks
- NZE: Punctuation inside or outside quotation marks?
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- Copyright and Permissions
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- How to self-publish your book in New Zealand
- When is my book ready for publishing?
- Types of editing
- 5 things to tell your editor
- The revision and editing process
- What are beta readers?
- What to expect when you get your manuscript back
- How to order the pages of a book
- Fact checking fiction writing
- Formatting your manuscript for submission
- How long does it take to edit a book?
- Why I belong to editing associations
- How to write recipes for cookbooks and blogs
- The basics of writing a cookbook
- How to use Tracked Changes in Word
- How to use basic Word Styles
- How to fix common formatting errors in Word