When I meet a new client, one question I always ask at the first brainstorming meeting is “do you have a style guide?” I ask this more in hope than expectation. Usually the answer is, “marketing might have something.” Translation: if we do have one, we don’t use it.
It is a shame, and it highlights one of the main differences between the two halves of my career. When I was a journalist, everybody wrote according to a house style guide. When I started working as a writer in businesses in the City, few people had even heard of one. This is because in newspapers, the product is words. They have to be good. They have to be right. Otherwise the product is rubbish. If, however, you are in the widget business, it’s the quality of the widgets that counts. Consistent hyphenation can fall by the wayside. Consistent widget manufacture cannot.
So what is a style guide? In short, it is a list that details how an organisation is going to use words consistently. “Focused” can be spelled with one s or two. Either is right, but interchanging them isn’t. English, with all its richness, is full of perfectly correct alternatives. A style guide addresses this.
Style guides can be particularly important on co-written documents which, in the business world, means almost all of them.
I once worked on an important financial statement attributed to the CFO that referred, on different pages, to £1bn, $7bn and €3,000,000,000. Why? Because the PR guy, the IR guy and the internal reporting guy couldn’t agree how to represent billions. They each had their own way, and probably hadn’t even noticed they didn’t correlate.
It looked messy and, if published, wouldn’t have reflected well on the CFO, who was, nominally at least, supposed to be the author and presented himself to the market as an “attention to detail” man. What should the PR guy, IR guy and internal reporting guy do? Well, they could ask the CFO which perfectly correct expression of billion he preferred, or they could consult the style guide. I know which alternative I’d prefer.
And what about documents for international consumption? The verb “to table” has entirely opposite meanings in British and American English, both based on the different uses of the table in Parliament and Congress. If you “table” something in Britain, you propose it. If you table it in the US, it means you reject it. For that reason, I tabled, in the American sense, the use of the word “table” as a verb a long time ago. Not because I favour British English over American English (I certainly do not), but because I prefer clarity to confusion.
One style guide doesn’t fit all. Different businesses will have different difficult words. When compiling a style guide for a business involved in agriculture, I’d recommend only using the word “bantam” when talking about chickens. I’d leave that out when compiling one for a hedge fund, and give different advice to a sportswear manufacturer.
Still, there are a few off-the-peg solutions that can get you started. Travel writer Bill Bryson used to be a subeditor on The Times. His book Troublesome Words is a great style guide for British English. Across the pond, many US writers will use the masterly, yet brief text Elements of Style, commonly referred to as Strunk & White. It’s a great text, and a fabulous read. And more and more publications are putting their style guides online. Good examples are the Economist, the Daily Telegraph and the New York Times.
So here, as a late Christmas present, are a few online gems. Enjoy.
Style & Substance, the Wall Street Journal’s style blog:
Style Matters, a fabulous blog from former Daily Mail sub editor, Margaret Ashworth:
As a bonus free gift, here is an edition of BBC Radio 4’s brilliant show A Good Read in which science writer Steven Pinker discusses why he thinks Strunk & White is a bit of a page turner.