A matter of style: Your organization’s language manual

Every organization that produces written content for outside readers should have a style guide—an in-house manual that covers things such as when to capitalize a person’s title, how to handle acronyms, what format to use for measurements, and how to navigate the language pitfalls and quirks that are common to your organization, industry, or region. Style guides also can address your organization’s spelling, punctuation, and capitalization preferences for products, services, departments, offices, agencies, and other operating units.

Why do you need a style guide? Clarity, consistency, reputation, and quality are four good reasons. Those reasons have long been the basis of the need for a style guide, but the reasons are even stronger today.

Organizations today share written content on many fronts—on corporate websites, on social-media sites, in sales/marketing material, in printed publications, in large group presentations. Chances are good that any one of your readers (or clients/sales prospects/partners) is going to see information in multiple formats.

When the details in one format conflict with the details in another format, readers take note. And many of them judge you based on that conflict of information—innocuous though it might seem to you. (“This company can’t make up its mind on whether it has a Widget Servicing Department or a Widget Service Office. What other details do they screw up?”) For some readers, those inconsistencies foster confusion and frustration. (“Is the Widget Servicing Department the same thing as the Widget Service Office? I don’t have time to sort this all out.”)

Thanks to modern publishing tools, virtually anyone within an organization can publish content for public consumption. Interns are updating websites. Engineers are creating printed handouts for conferences. Salespeople are putting together slide presentations. Without a shared style manual to guide them, there’s an excellent chance that they’re all doing things differently and producing content that looks like it came from three different organizations. Due to time and manpower constraints, not all of that content (and not all style questions) necessarily can flow through a central editing/proofing or P.R. department. So the in-house style guide becomes the source to which those interns, engineers, and salespeople turn to make sure they get the language right—to make sure that they all are, quite literally, on the same page.

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Some organizations will want to create their own style guide—especially those that are in very specialized fields or that deal with lots of acronyms. Other organizations might find that an existing, popular style guide is sufficient—or a good basis for building an in-house style manual. Some popular style guides include The Chicago Manual of Style, the AP Stylebook, and the U.S. Government Printing Office’s Style Manual. (When relying on one of the popular style guides, it’s important to let workers know which edition of the guide will be gospel within your organization.) And then there are specialized guides, such as the AMA Manual of Style, geared toward medical writers and editors.

Whether you write your own or rely on an existing style guide, the important thing is to have a style guide. Make sure someone is in charge of selecting or updating the guide. And make sure there are mechanisms for educating workers about the guide—how to get their eyes on it, when to use it, and why to use it.

What should your style guide include? Well, that’s up to you or the people you designate to oversee the guide. Your style manual can be as nitty-gritty or as generic as you want it to be. It can be loaded with your pet peeves and preferences, or it can be a brief document that addresses only the most common and serious language goofs for your organization, while pointing users to a popular guide for all other questions of style.

Regardless of the approach you ultimately choose, there’s a slough of questions to think about up front. Which acronyms should be spelled out on first reference? (It depends on your audience.) Are acronyms still O.K. on first reference when referring to NASA and the FBI? (If foreign readers are part of your audience, you might want to spell out those agency names on first reference.) What are the language mistakes we see most often within the organization? Have we been calling our products, services, and business units by different names at different times? Are our people confusing readers by leaving hyphens out of important compound modifiers? Are they using hyphens in place of dashes? Do they know how to make an M dash in Microsoft Word? Do they know the difference between an M dash and an N dash? Do they need to know? Do we care?

The questions aren’t necessarily tough, and some of them are more important than others. But they’ll lead you to answers and to a style guide that will help ensure that the information your organization produces is clear and consistent.

Copyright © 2013 by L. Scott Tillett, lstillett.wordpress.com. All rights reserved.

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