Do your web content, proposals, articles, and other communication pieces seem to come from totally different organizations? Are job titles capitalized in one blog post and lower-cased in the next? How do you handle numbers (ten or 10?) or URLs in texts and references?
Consistency makes for a cleaner, more professional portrayal of your organization. And I am here to tell you that you can do it through a style guide.* Don't spend months creating a long, drawn-out document that people never use. Instead, consider the following--
Make the Case
People are busy. The last thing they want to hear is that they have to worry about serial commas. Explain that the organization has a style (and, hence, a style guide) to make them look good. Present it as a reference that will save them time and aggravation, not add to it.
Don't Reinvent the Wheel
If you haven't already, choose from among several standard style references that will resolve probably 75 percent (or would you prefer "75%"?) of your issues. (See below for some of the main references used.)
Make sure everyone who needs the information knows which style guide your organization favors. Have print copies and URLs conveniently available, but let people off the hook-- every last person does not need to know if the style guide favors CA, Cal., or California.
Add Your Spin
Of course, your organization or industry has its own language quirks. Here's where your custom guide comes in. Comb through existing communications to focus on words and phrases in frequent use.
- Names of departments and how you want to deal with them
- Titles and names (does the CEO prefer to use her middle initial? Will the board insist that titles are upper-cased?)
- Industry-relevant verbiage (open-source development or open source development? ad hoc or ad hoc?)
When I mentioned this month's newsletter topic to an experienced editor (and one who gently reminded me of her organization's style when I handed in an assignment), she had a few great suggestions:
- Include examples, especially when your style diverges from the guide you normally reference.
- Use phrases and an organizational structure to make it
- the guide easily searchable.
She has created guides of 50 pages and more for academics who deal with a lot of references. But length is not always necessary. A "guide" of just one or two page is often sufficient.
Your guide is an as-needed reference. Place it on a common drive, as a Google doc, or however people retrieve shared information in your organization. Announce its existence in an "it's here to help you" way.
Then, remind people it exists, especially new hires and contractors who are least likely to know the organization's style conventions.
The guide will reflect changes in usage over time--new leadership, new technology, and the like. As an example, consider the evolution of the terms WWW, Web site, web site, and website over the span of just a few years.
*Note that the term "style guide" also can refer to visual guidelines--such as the color palette, approved fonts, and other elements that are part of branding. I will leave that topic for a designer and restrict this article to words!