What is a style guide?

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.

Giving constructive feedback

I was recently promoted and now I often have to edit or give feedback on my staff’s writing. Do you have any tips on how to do this?

One of the things I’ve noticed over my years as an editor and writing trainer is that people often get put into positions at work where suddenly they have to give feedback on other people’s writing, but they’ve never been trained on how to do it effectively. You can be a great writer yourself and still struggle with this – in fact, good writers often struggle more, because they often know by instinct that something sounds ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, but can’t consciously explain why. So here’s a few tips for giving feedback to other people in a way that builds them up and helps everyone improve.

Use track changes

If you’re using Microsoft Word or a similar word-processing program, track changes is your friend. In Word, you can find this under the Review tab. In Google Docs, use the ‘Suggesting’ feature. This will show each change you make (they’ll show up either in the text or in balloons beside it, depending on your settings) and will allow the original author to follow what you’ve done.

Explain yourself

Along with track changes, Word, Google Docs and similar programs also allow you to insert comments. Use this! Unless a change is immediately obvious (like fixing a typo), explain why you’ve done it. Don’t assume the author can read your mind. E.g. “I’ve made this change because our style guide says to write numbers below 10 as words, not numerals.” This will also help your relationship with the author, because people are much more accepting of changes when they understand why they’ve been made. Early in my editing career, when I was working in-house for a government department, the few times I had authors get upset about changes were because I’d failed to explain myself clearly. Depending on your workflow and tempo, you could also consider sitting down with the author and walking them through your changes face-to-face.

Look for solutions, not problems

I sometimes see documents that contain feedback from other people, and I can always pick the inexperienced or untrained ones because they highlight problems without offering solutions. A comment might say “Poor grammar” or “Sentence is too long” and leave it at that. This is deeply unhelpful. Always assume the author has given it their best shot and can’t see the issue – either because they’re too close to the text, or because they don’t realise it’s a problem, or because they don’t know how to fix it. Simply pointing it out without helping them fix it is a recipe for frustration all round – they might not know what they did wrong, and they might not be able to fix it in the way you want. Instead, fix the issue (i.e. offer a solution), and then explain (with specifics) why you did it. Instead of “poor grammar”, say “I changed ‘were’ to ‘was’ here because organisations are always singular.” Instead of “sentence is too long,” break it up then explain why you broke it where you did. This also helps the author learn and will help them become a better writer. An editor’s job is to help people solve problems – even (or especially) problems they didn’t know they had.

Only change what you need to

One of biggest things a new editor needs to learn is the difference between wanting to change something based on external principles (like house style, brand voice, principles of plain English, or grammar/spelling conventions) and wanting to change something based on your own personal preferences. The fact that you wouldn’t write it that way yourself is not a valid reason for changing something. Every writer has their own voice, even in dry workplace documents, and you should generally leave this alone, unless it really doesn’t conform to your organisation’s brand guidelines (the tone is too casual, for example). There are two big questions to ask yourself when you encounter something you want to change: Will the audience understand it as it is? and Can I justify this change with an external source? If the answers are ‘No’ and ‘Yes’ respectively, then go for it. Here are some reasons for making edits and the sources you can use to justify them:

  • Spelling or grammatical errors (dictionary, style guide)
  • Word choice, spelling, referencing style etc that doesn’t conform to your organisation’s house style (style guide, dictionary)
  • Writing that doesn’t adhere to the principles of plain English, if your organisation uses them, or is generally unclear (style guide, forthcoming international plain language standard)
  • Tone or voice that doesn’t fit your organisation’s brand (brand guidelines, style guide)
  • Formatting or layout (headings, paragraph spacing etc) that doesn’t conform to your organisation’s style (brand guidelines, style guide)
  • Factual errors (reliable online or other sources).

As always, explain why you made the change, so the author knows for next time.

A lot of people are worried about giving or receiving feedback on their writing because it can feel very personal, even adversarial. But it doesn’t have to be, and hopefully these tips will help you become more confident at editing others’ work in a constructive way.

Using jargon

I work in a technical field. Is it okay to use jargon?

If you’ve ever been trained in plain English or professional writing, you’ve probably been told to avoid jargon at all costs. However, I think there’s room for more nuance. First, let’s look at the definition of jargon.

The Macquarie Dictionary has three main definitions of jargon:

  1. the language peculiar to a trade, profession, or other group
  2. pretentious language characterised by the use of uncommon or unfamiliar words
  3. unintelligible or meaningless talk or writing; gibberish.

It’s clear that writers of any sort should avoid definitions 2 and 3. Good writing should be easily understood by your audience, and pretentiousness has no place in it. Even academic writing, where pretentious language is often used as a supposed marker of intelligence, is thankfully now moving much more towards plain language and accessibility.

But what about definition 1? This is where audience becomes important.

Technical or profession-specific language is not a problem in and of itself. Often it provides nuance that gets lost when simpler terms are used. What matters is your audience. If you’re writing for other professionals in your field, you can use more technical language and know that you’ll be understood. However, if you’re writing for a general audience – on a website, for example – you need to use language they will understand. Often this means swapping technical terms for more commonly understood words, and checking for any assumed knowledge. This isn’t ‘dumbing down’; it’s meeting your audience where they’re at. In some fields, such as public health, doing this well can literally be the difference between life and death. In others, such as law, where there’s a growing push for the use of plain language, it impacts important things like informed consent.

With any writing, the first thing you should ask yourself is ‘Who am I writing for?’. Your answer to that will determine whether or not jargon is acceptable.

Improving your self-editing

What skills should I develop to get better at editing my own work?

Great question. You might expect me to say something like ‘spelling, grammar, and punctuation’, but actually the skills that I think are most important for an editor (or even for someone who just wants to get better at self-editing) aren’t writing-related at all. In my opinion, the top three skills that all good editors cultivate are curiosity, empathy, and attention to detail. Let me explain.


Good editors are fundamentally curious. They have a wide-ranging general knowledge (often in addition to a speciality) and they love adding to it, learning about new subjects, and putting pieces together. This is important, because a major part of editing is looking critically at a document and being aware of when things may not be quite right – when they need to be fact-checked, referenced, or referred to a specialist (such as a lawyer or accountant) for further advice.

Once you get into the habit of reading critically, you start to develop intuition about the types of things that need to be checked. Editors of historical fiction, for example, will know when something sounds anachronous to the time period the book is set in. In my field – government, business, and professional associations – I try to have a good sense of what’s going on in the wider world, because the documents I edit often refer to politics, international affairs, and societal issues such as public health or climate change, and these can change quickly.

My aim is to learn something from every document I work on, and it’s amazing how often I apply that knowledge to subsequent projects. Learn to read your own work critically, ask why, and be curious about the world, and your self-editing will improve substantially.


No matter their field, a good writer knows their audience. And a good editor can get out of their own head and into the mind of that audience, to think about whether they’ll understand what the writer is trying to communicate. This means developing empathy with audiences whose experiences may be very different from your own (e.g. people whose first language is not English, or people with disability).

One of my editorial bugbears is when I point out to a writer that their work may have accessibility problems due to the way it’s presented or written, or even due to something as simple as using two spaces rather than one after a full stop – and the writer chooses to ignore it. This shows a lack of empathy with their audience and suggests they don’t care that they may be making life harder for their readers. If you want to get better at self-editing, learn to look at your writing – language, tone, structure and formatting – from outside the lens of your own experience.

Attention to detail

In some ways this one is obvious – a good editor needs to be able to spot things like errant punctuation, or the fact that one paragraph has 9pt line spacing while the next one has 3pt. But attention to detail is about more than this. It ties in closely to curiosity. In my field, attention to detail means seeing a reference to ‘Council of Australian Governments’ and knowing that COAG was disbanded in mid-2020. For a fiction editor, it might mean tracking down the etymology of a particular word to check if it would have actually been used in that context. Individually, these are small things, but collectively they can make or break a piece of writing. Paying attention to the little things will vastly improve the quality of your writing.

Like any skill, these three can be developed with practice. The more you use them, the easier it will get, and the better your writing will become. And they will also serve you well if you find yourself in a position where you have to give feedback on other people’s writing.

Using ‘however’

How do I use ‘however’? Do I need a comma?

‘However’ is one of those things that people commonly trip over. The short answer is yes, you do need a comma…sometimes.

‘However’ can be used in three ways:

  1. To start a sentence that contradicts the previous one
  2. In the middle of a sentence, contradicting the previous sentence
  3. In the middle of a sentence as a new clause that contradicts the previous clause. This always needs a semicolon.

Examples of each use (note the different punctuation):

  1. Jen always wore red. However, that day she surprised me by wearing blue.
  2. Jen always wore red. That day, however, she surprised me by wearing blue.
  3. Jen always wore red; however, that day she surprised me by wearing blue.

Some purists don’t like starting sentences with ‘however’. However (see what I did there?), it’s becoming more common and is now generally accepted.