Whether you’re writing a book or marketing a business, it’s smart to document how you handle writing issues. Understandably, most don’t have The Chicago Manual of Style or the Associated Press Stylebook on the ready. You can still add a professional air to your writing without such tools. What’s more critical than citing a resource for your choice, is being consistent. That’s why a style guide is important. Not one your purchase, but one you develop yourself.
Style guides outline how to handle questions that may arise when writing material for a book, newspaper, academic paper, or in the case of businesses or not-for-profits, promotional material. The document simply addresses how to treat particular writing issues. It can be as long as a book or as short as a page. It’s a reference to help keep your prose delivery intentional and consistent.
The good news is, it’s super easy to create a customized reference tool for you. The best way to archive this material is with an electronic file that can be updated regularly and easily shared. All you need to do is jot down how you want to handle potentially confusing punctuation, capitalization, numbers, and other items that come up as you’re writing.
As an example, AP says write out numbers one to nine. Once you get to ten, AP advises you treat it as 10. Chicago spells numbers out all the way to one hundred. Which style do you want to model? Or do you have a good reason to do do it differently than either?
Even though Chicago is considered the go-to resource for books, many authors I work with prefer AP’s approach to numbers. That’s probably because it’s what they’re used to seeing in newspapers, magazines, and other periodicals. For those planning to have an editor and/or a proof reader help polish a book, it makes sense to let these people to know if you have a strong preference for how numbers and other issues are handled. This applies to authors who plan to self-publish. If you’re handing your manuscript off to a traditional publisher, you’ll be required to follow their style guide.
It’s equally wise for business owners and not-for-profit organizations to note stylistic writing decisions. This document can be a great resouce when writing newsletters, brochures, websites, and even social media postings. Even if you’re the only one responsible for such things, this tool is valuable. It can be difficult to recall how you treated something last week as you juggle all the tasks of running an organization. Of course, if you’re bringing vendors into the mix, a file that cites these preferences becomes even more useful.
Why a style guide is important for authors
People notice when you’re inconsistent. It undermines your credibility. This doesn’t just pertain to what you write, of course, but a book can last a long time. That’s why it’s prudent to make the effort to specify how you want to present yourself before you go through the final stages of writing a book. Even better, start doing it as you begin the writing process. It’s your baby so you should feel free to put your personality into it, within reason. Quirky punctuation, spelling, capitalization, and other choices are fine, so long as it’s intentional. Handling such things differently from chapter to chapter reads as carelessness and mistakes.
Capitalization can be something authors feel strongly about. Traditionally, mom and dad get lower case treatment. But for those who have deep relationships with these family members, or are talking about someone who has passed, initial caps can feel more appropriate. Of course, if you capitalize Dad and treat mom in lower case, that looks weird (although I do get it). Again, consistency is the important thing to strive for here. If your preference differs from what’s recommended, this belongs in your style guide.
God can be touchy one. This word gets capitalized treatment in all the style guides I’m aware of when it pertains to a single entity. It’s okay to choose lowercase, but that sends a strong message, so be sure your intent is reflected in this choice. Know too, you might offend some people by doing this.
Books are lengthy documents. While the ideal word count is going down along with increasingly shorter attention spans, it’s still usually a collection of at least 40,000-60,000 words. That’s a lot to keep track of. Not just for you as you’re writing the book, but for anyone you bring in to help you make your treatise better.
The easiest way to create a style guide for your book is to do so as you go. Don’t worry if you’re not sure about the correct approach on a word or sentence. If you feel strongly about something, make a note.
There’s nothing wrong with including questions in your document either. Do you get confused about what to capitalize and where to put a comma? The beauty of hiring specialized expertise is you don’t have to know this. Your chosen professional will have this stuff committed to memory, or know where to look it up. If you’re like me, though, you’ll want an answer when a question comes up. It’s curiosity, but also a chance to learn a lesson you can apply in the future. Ask your team for the answers.
Why small business owners need a style guide
For many entrepreneurs, your business is you. That means everything you do counts. How you present yourself in your promotional material, your written communications, your social media channels, your company branding, sends a message. Ensuring you convey a consistent and positive one can help you shine.
Little things, like whether you capitalize job titles or use an Oxford comma (that’s when you add a comma in a series with at least three items right before “and” or “or”) make a difference. It’s not about whether you do it or not, but more about doing it the same way. That’s where documenting what you want comes into play.
If you’re capitalizing titles on your business cards, you should be doing it on your website, in your newsletters, and with brochure copy. Does it drive you crazy to see sentences start or end with prepositions? Make a note of that. Maybe you choose to follow recommended hyphen or italic treatments, but forget what’s right. Do the research or ask someone who knows, then jot that down for easy reference.
Why a style guide is important for not-for-profits
It was delightful to get a style guide from TAP, an area not-for-profit. While I suspect this serves primarily for internal use, it’s been wonderful to have a document noting their preferences for easy reference as a vendor.
I do interviews, write newsletter articles, generate website content, and can be a media resource for this organization. There’s a full-time staff person who edits everything I submit, then sends it back to me for review. It’s fantastic to have such a talented professional giving me feedback. I’m learning all the time from her expertise.
TAP serves as a model others should follow. Their style guide is only about two pages, but is a super tool. It covers preferences that are consistent with Chicago and/or AP recommendations, but also indicates when they’re not. For example, how they handle titles, programs, and other capitalization can be as recommended, but sometimes it’s different. I can simply open the document to verify their preferences when I have a question.
What this means is everything they do is consistent. Website content and printed newsletter articles get the same treatment as press releases and promotional items. That sends a message they’re professional, and pay attention to the little things. It makes it easy for staff across disciplines to present as one. This document can be shared whenever they bring in contracted support for writing assignments. This saves time, money, and errors that can detract from the intended message.
Is a style guide for you?
You might think creating a style guide is a time consuming and unnecessary task. You might be right. If you and your business are writing all your communications with thumbs, it probably doesn’t matter if you’re consistent. Blame mistakes on autocorrect.
If, however, you’re running a business that depends on at least some writing that will be around for more time than it takes to scroll, you’ll come to enjoy the convenience and confidence that comes with having a style guide. It’s not just for publications or academicians anymore. Use it as a business tool to help you present more professionally and to save time relying on recall or research.
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