Sweat the Small Stuff: Why You Need a Style Guide

by Michael Sosnick

“Fashion passes; style remains.” Coco Chanel was just as right about words as she was about clothes; smooth turns of phrase are only one piece of the prose puzzle. To create professional writing with staying power, it’s essential to have an effective style guide tailored to the needs of the project.

Style guides aren’t optional

Clean, consistent copy creates a sense of authority. For the same reason that typos mar even the most eloquent prose, style inconsistencies are unprofessional and distracting. Even a few differences in capitalization throughout an article can throw readers off and decrease credibility. At FunkyCorp we strive for perfection, and a style guide helps us achieve that — or at least come close.

This problem multiplies in larger publications and projects, with many writers, editors and proofreaders. Unless there’s a centralized document to keep everyone on the same track, it’s impossible to ensure consistent tone with unified style and usage.

I’ve learned this lesson the hard way a few too many times. I’ll get most of the way through editing a project when I forget whether I’m putting spaces around em-dashes. Without a document to consult, I have to search through my prior work to find the answer, only to find I’ve been inconsistent for the past month. It may seem like a small issue, but it adds time and worry.

Learn to love AP style

With so many tools and style manuals available, creating a comprehensive style guide from scratch is largely unnecessary. We tend to base our in-house style guides on AP style because it’s widely known, easily searchable and extremely comprehensive. Above all, it’s clear and concise — two of our main copy goals. Basing our style guides on such an extensive resource makes us more nimble. We can consult the experts when we’re unsure of details and make small tweaks when the project calls for it.

The online AP Stylebook isn’t just useful for editors; we recommend it to our freelance writers as well. An individual subscription (US$21 per year) is a small investment in raising your profile among commissioning editors. Delivering copy with consistent, accurate style makes our job much easier and stands out as particularly professional.

The AP Stylebook isn’t the only style manual on the block, of course. The Chicago Manual of Style is similarly popular. Consider a subscription there if it’s more common among your clients.

Adapt it to your needs

There is no one-size-fits-all style guide. The perfect style guide is the one that best supports the project, so when basing a style guide on another manual, you may need to make some tweaks.

AP style, for example, is geared to international news reporting, so it won’t be a 100-percent match for Japan tourism writing. Unlike AP, our style guides capitalize both words in phrases like “Okinawa Prefecture” to reflect standard English usage in Japan and match phrases like “Kyoto City.” We also avoid italics for any foreign — in most cases Japanese — words. Doing so normalizes their use among inbound visitors and removes the question of when the rule applies for more common terms, e.g. mochi vs. mochi and tsunami vs. tsunami.

These rules are all subject to change, however. Each project and client has unique, changing needs, so we aim to create an ideal style guide for the situation. A great style guide should be a living, breathing document as adaptable as the writers, editors and proofreaders using it.

What are your thoughts about style guides? Do you have particular style preferences? Or a style horror story? Let us know in the comments below!

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