Writing the Book on Style

Determining what style, what “voice,” your organization will use is one hurdle. Using that voice consistently is another. How do you keep everyone who writes for your organization on the same page? And how do you keep your published materials looking and sounding professional?

One of the most valuable tools any organization can develop is an editorial style manual. In the same way an identity manual guides graphic designers in the proper way to use your company’s logo and lay out various types of publications to support your brand, an editorial style manual guides those who write for you, whether employees or external consultants.  It can cover topics as basic as the rules of grammar or as sophisticated as how to project your organization’s preferred voice, whether formal, conversational, instructional, friendly, wise, experienced, hip, academic, etc. Most manuals land somewhere in between.

The writing world already has a few style manuals that are considered “bibles.” The Chicago Manual of Style and The Associated Press Stylebook are the two most frequently used. Certain professions or academic disciplines follow their own style manuals, such as the APA and MLA manuals.

Your organization will probably choose to follow “Chicago Style” or “AP Style.” The biggest difference between the two (and I’m generalizing here) is that Chicago Style uses a “serial comma” (a comma after “and” and “or” in a series — for example, “Our company produces widgets, whatsits, and thingamajigs.”) and AP Style doesn’t (“Our company produces widgets, whatsits and thingamajigs.”)

AP Style, as you would expect, is a journalistic style used by newspapers and news magazines. If your company uses a PR firm or has writers with a journalism or PR background, they likely use AP Style. Every book you read, along with most special interest magazines and journals, uses Chicago Style.*

You will want to choose a style and stick to it! Then you can build your own manual based on that style. (Note that your PR department may always use AP Style, even if your company chooses Chicago Style for everything else.) You’ll also want to refer to a good dictionary, such as Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary or the online version.

In many ways, your manual will simply distill the information from Chicago or AP and the dictionary to address the most common areas of confusion for writers.

For example:

  • One word or two or hyphenated? — Healthcare or health care? Fundraising or fund-raising? Nonprofit or non-profit or not-for-profit?
  • Capitalization — Internet or internet? Web site or website? Vice President or vice president?
  • Punctuation — U.S. or US? Colon or semicolon? Whats and hows vs. do’s and don’ts
  • Dates and numbers — May 2 or May 2nd? Ten times or 10 times? 20 percent or 20%? (800) 555-1212 or 1-800-555-1212 or 800.555.1212?
  • Grammar issues — It’s or its? That or which? Comprise vs. Consist vs. Compose
  • Bulleted or numbered lists — Do you use a colon or a period before? Do you end each item with a period, a semicolon, or nothing?
  • Typographic issues — Italics or underlined or bold? Hyphen vs. en-dash vs. em-dash; One space between sentences and after colons, not two
  • Language preferences — OK to say “you” and “your”? Use of gender — he, she, s/he?
  • Company specifics — How to refer to particular divisions or subsidiaries; Language to avoid for legal or cultural reasons
  • Writing tips — Choose active vs. passive style; Vary sentence length; Avoid jargon

Some people may consider these trivial issues. But for many readers, inconsistency and grammar errors are at best a wince-inducer and at worst a sign of carelessness, unprofessionalism, and perhaps poor education.

A style manual needn’t be overly complex or time-consuming to develop or maintain. In fact, it should be a “living” document that you revise as questions arise. Enlist the help of your writers or proofreaders to start one — or simply keep a running list for yourself of how you’ve handled issues like those listed above. Obviously, a large company that generates a lot of written materials will require a more comprehensive style manual than a small nonprofit. One client I work with has an 80-page style manual, another a 7-page manual — both are helpful and effective.

The bottom line: You want your written materials to present your organization in the best possible light. An editorial style manual will help you do just that — simply, economically, and professionally.


I think of myself as a stylist, and stylists can
become notoriously obsessed with the
placing of a comma, the weight of a semicolon.
~ Truman Capote

* My preference is Chicago Style — I believe the millisecond it takes to add the serial comma eliminates any potential confusion when dealing with sentences more complicated than a simple “apples, peaches, and pears” series.

For example:

His expertise includes a variety of electrical inventions, including those concerning consumer products, medical devices, software, wireless and wireline telephony and digital signal processing.

I would rather avoid the second of confusion that arises at the end of that sentence, where “…wireless and wireline telephony and digital signal processing” run together. So if I choose to add a comma after “telephony” to avoid any confusion, why not just add the comma every time and never be confused?

Most law firms I work with use AP Style, which I find fascinating — attorneys are sticklers about clarity, yet favor a style that allows muddiness to creep in. Curious.


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