Write in style: Create a style guide

writing style

Are you Ralph Lauren or Victoria’s Secret? Do you prefer the Philadelphia Zoo or the Philadelphia Orchestra? Is your writing style Chicago or AP?

If you’re clueless about the third pair, please read on.

Two style manuals dominate published English in the United States:

  • Academic and scholarly institutions — and most books — use The University of Chicago Press’ Manual of Style, called Chicago.
  • Newspapers tend to prefer the Associated Press Stylebook, called AP.

Professional writers and editors know these style guides well. They own the most current copy of the one they use routinely and a decades-old, coffee-stained, flower-pressing copy of the other. (Other manuals abound, published by the American Psychological Association, the Government Printing Office and more. But Chicago and AP have the clout.)

The manuals differ on aspects of style, usage, punctuation and more. For example, Chicago uses a serial comma (lions, tigers, [comma] and bears) while AP does not (lions, tigers [no comma] and bears).

Departments within your company may adhere to different usages, either intentionally or accidentally. Your marketing division may produce sales aids in Chicago style and your public relations department may write internet copy à la AP.

If you manage publications or correspondence for your company, or wish you did, your mission is to create an in-house style guide that applies to the words and jargon you use every day.

Create a style guide that regulates the documents you or your organization produces. Decide, for example, whether to:

  • Capitalize job titles and department names.
  • Use the 2-character Postal Service state abbreviations.
  • Write telephone area codes as 215- , or (215) or 215/.
  • Use periods with abbreviations of academic degrees (PhD or Ph.D.).
  • Type workforce and workplace as single words or two words.

And so on.

When you distribute your guide, offer an explanation, such as: “These style guidelines incorporate the words and usage questions we encounter most often. The purpose of the guidelines is to establish flexible rules of editorial conduct. We have used the Associated Press Stylebook as a basis. If you wish to suggest changes, please call or e-mail me.”

The bigger your organization, the more important it is that you require uniformity. Unfortunately, though, the bigger the organization, the harder it is to implement.

Try one anyway. Share a draft with a few people, soliciting input. Try gaining consensus before publication.

While eclecticism in home decor is trendy, and mixing denim and velvet for festive dressing is classy – in business writing, consistency is the goal. Consider style guides, both commercial (AP or Chicago) and domestic (the one you draft).

Then you’re always in style.