What’s a style guide?

One of the first things an editor might ask before they start work on your document is if you have a company style guide. Often people think this is the company’s brand style guide or logo guidelines; but a writing style guide serves a different purpose.

A style guide is a set of standards for writing and formatting (the layout and font sizes of) documents. It might be used by an organisation or institution (like a university), or a group of professionals working in the same area (for example, engineers).

Your style guide might outline the fonts and text sizes to use for documents, and this is where it could cover some of the same ground as a branding guide. But it will usually outline the decisions you’ve made about language that will be used in your company documents, so that you can be consistent throughout them.

If you don’t do a lot of writing and producing documents for your business, you probably won’t need a lengthy style guide; but even a one- or two-page document can be helpful in this case. For bigger organisations, like a Government ministry or department, a style guide might run to around 100 pages.

One of the original style guides in New Zealand was the Government Print style guide, which was used by all Government departments. This was published by Government Print as a book, and could be bought in bookshops by anyone who wanted to use it as a guide. After the sell-off of Government Print in the 1980s this style guide transformed into various forms; it has been out of print for some time now.

Some well-known style guides are:

There are many others as well. You may decide that for your business, you’d like to follow one of these as your style. These are usually used by large organisations or academic institutions, so if a one- or two-page document better suits your business’s needs, that’s often a better way to go.

So why does your business need a style guide?

If all the writing your business usually does is a few advertisements in the local paper and a Facebook post or two, you probably don’t need a style guide right now. But if you write proposals for clients, or reports that are published on your website, or even have a range of brochures for marketing, having a style guide gives an extra level of professionalism, consistency, and attention to detail that clients will notice.

What’s covered in a style guide?

Some things that might be covered in a style guide include:

  • use of the active and passive voice (and what these are)
  • whether to use UK or US English spellings
  • how to use apostrophes
  • when to use capital letters
  • punctuation of lists
  • colons and semi-colons
  • when to spell out numbers and when to use numerals
  • the format to use for dates and times (“the 12th of May”, or “Thursday 12 May”)
  • how to give measurements
  • how to use quotation marks
  • how to reference other documents
  • whether to use one or two spaces after a full-stop*
  • when to use bold/italics/underlining
  • how to use acronyms
  • a list of commonly misspelt words in your field, and the correct spelling
  • how to lay out company documents, including the fonts to use for headings and general text.

*the one- or two-space battle has been known to reach epic proportions in some businesses. You can avoid more tension than you realise by stating in your style guide what your “house style” is for this.

There are some words for which there is more than one correct spelling; for example, focused/focussed. Both of these spellings are actually correct, so in your style guide you might state that you’ve decided for your company that you will always use the “focused” spelling.

Documenting things like this in one place as you come across them helps when:

  • someone else needs to write a document for your company
  • an editor is contracted, to make sure that the documents they edit for you all conform to your preferred (“house”) style.

Many of my future blog posts will cover the points on the list above, so you might want to use those as a starting point. If you’d like to get started sooner, though, get in touch, and we can look at setting up a basic style guide for you.


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