I often see you talk about ‘style guides’ but I don’t really understand what they are. What’s a style guide and why does my organisation need one?

When writers and editors talk about ‘style’ or ‘house style’, we mean the writing, spelling and grammar conventions an organisation uses consistently across all its written communications. These include things like:

  • the dialect of English being used (e.g. US, British, Australian, Canadian), which will impact spelling, punctuation and word choice
  • how lists are formatted
  • whether numbers are written as words or numerals
  • how people are referred to (e.g. titles, surname, first name)
  • how organisations are referred to (e.g. always use the organisation’s full name, not an abbreviation)
  • preferred terminology in regard to race, gender, sexuality and disability
  • how academic references/citations should be written
  • how abbreviations should be used
  • how to write currencies.

Obviously, these sorts of details are too much for most people to remember. So organisations write them down in a ‘style guide’. Sometimes, organisations create their own in-house style guides. However, creating a style guide from scratch is finicky and time-consuming, so many places prefer to use existing off-the-shelf ones, which you can access for a fee. This is particularly the case in academia and book publishing.

In the US, some commonly used style guides are the Chicago Manual of Style and American Psychological Association (APA) style. In Australia, the default Australian English style guide is the Australian Government Style Manual. These guides are very comprehensive and also often include guidance on things like how to structure documents, how to identify and write for a particular audience, and how to write in plain English.

Sometimes, organisations work off a hybrid model: they write their own light-touch style guide that addresses the major issues their writers have, and then defer to a comprehensive off-the-shelf guide for everything else. As an editor, I will always work with the house style guide first, then go to the off-the-shelf one for anything that isn’t covered.

Why your organisation needs one

Style guides are useful because they provide consistency. Writers know (or should know!) where to go to look something up if they’re unsure. Managers and editors use them to standardise documents and as evidence for making changes, rather than relying on gut feelings.

In the kinds of organisations I work with, writing style guides often sit alongside branding style guides, which are high-level marketing guides that detail how an organisation looks (its logo, colour scheme, standard fonts etc), and sounds (its ‘brand voice’ – the tone and language it uses to convey a certain image). All of these help to keep an organisation’s voice and image consistent. However, creating a style guide is only half the battle. In my experience the biggest problem is a) ensuring that staff know you have a style guide and b) getting them to use it.

Published by Louise Merrington

Louise Merrington is a writer and IPEd Accredited Editor specialising in plain English editing for government, businesses, professional associations and non-profits. She is also the author of several novels, under the name L.M. Merrington.

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