Creating a simple style guide

Put together a handy checklist to give your writing a consistent look and feel.

As I wrote here, creating a simple style guide can give you a handy checklist to ensure your writing looks – and sounds – just how you want it.

Creating your own is simple and it doesn’t have to be very long

Some major publications have very helpfully put their own guide online, for instance The Guardian and National Geographic. Putting your own style guide together is simple and it doesn’t have to be very long

Others, such as The New York Times, offer theirs for sale and some are dedicated resources, such as the Chicago Manual of Style .

While it’s great to have these at your fingertips, putting your own together is simple and it doesn’t have to be very long.

You can tailor it to include just what you need.

Four easy steps for creating your style guide:

1. Decide on your tone of voice

2. List formal titles (proper nouns) that you need to get right

3. Decide how to express terms you use regularly

4. Recognise jargon

1. Decide on your tone of voice

Who are you talking to? How much do they already know?

Decide whether you want to be, for instance, a chatty friend down the pub or a more formal authority.

Hey, there! We’re Super Duper Bathrooms. Pop in and you’ll find a huge range of quality bathroom furniture that won’t break the bank!

Welcome to Super Duper Bathrooms. Pay us a visit and you will discover our extensive array of bathroom suites and furniture, offering you quality and choice at competitive prices. 

Tip: Contracting verbs instantly makes them sound less formal.

You’ll find a huge range
You will discover

Tip: Use exclamation marks sparingly. 

While not generally appropriate at all in formal writing, even when you’re aiming for a more relaxed tone of voice you don’t want people to think you’re being flippant.

2. List formal titles (proper nouns) that you need to get right

Note down the correct spellings etc. to make sure you get them right each time you use them.

To get you going:

Do you refer to government departments?

For example, it’s the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, but the Department of Health and Social Care.

Do people you mention have titles or letters after their name (post-nominals)?

It’s not just honours and academic qualifications, many professional industries have their own titles and post-nominals. 

How about organisations and companies? Many don’t write their names quite how you’d expect.

For example: easyJet, YouTube, eBay, sportscotland.

Tip: If an organisation uses a lower-case letter to begin its name, try to avoid starting a sentence with it. 

3. Decide how to express terms you use regularly

Note the correct spelling, and – where you have a choice – decide how you’re going to write them.

We all have a few of those words that we can never remember how to spell – add those to your list too.

To get you going:

3.40pm, 3.40 p.m., or 15:40
5th May 2018, 5th May 2018, May 5th 2018, 
or 05 May 2018
percent, per cent, or %


Tip: Consult published style guides to give you an idea of what to include. 

4. Recognise jargon

Have you ever been in a meeting where everyone else seems to know what’s going on but you don’t? (I have, and it was weird).

This is how your readers may feel if they come across too much jargon. If they feel they’re in the wrong place, they’ll stop reading and go somewhere else.

Words and acronyms that you use without too much thought may be unfamiliar to others. Take a good look at your text and list those that you feel should be explained.

Tip: If you’re not sure, ask someone unrelated to your industry if they understand what you’ve written. 

You should be left with a handy friend that you know you can rely on whenever you’re drafting text.

You’re unlikely to be able to think of everything in one sitting, but you can add to your list whenever you need.

Most of it will become second nature after time, but checking your work against your guide will ensure you don’t forget anything and avoid those pesky mistakes.

Back to Home

Onboarding – the shape shifting English language

New verbs in the English language are coming at us from all directions.

I recently registered with a website and was told I had onboarded. I’ve since seen onboarding used several times.

Since when did this become a verb?

One of the beauties of any language is the way it’s a shapeshifter – growing and changing to suit the needs of us, its masters.

We use language to say what we mean and words turning from nouns, adjectives – even people’s names – into verbs is commonplace.

We’re blogging, emailing and texting; at work we might be mentoring, strategising and actioning; while having battled (oops, there’s another) home through the traffic we could be vacuuming, gaming, phoning our friends or maybe unfriending them instead.

An academic exercise

If you Google it (add that one to the list), you’ll see that there’s no end of discussion on verbing.

Some treat it as an academic subject (it’s been going on longer than you’d think) while others, for example, look at how brand names have slipped into our everyday language, with many citing social media use as the main culprit for recent additions.

Words turning from nouns, adjectives – even people’s names – into verbs is commonplace

And it’s not just verbs. I have a good friend whose ears steam every time he hears the word invite used as a noun. “It’s an invitation!”

The French have always been very protective about their language. The Académie française, that guardian of all things French and wordy, has a handy section entitled Dire, Ne Pas Dire (Say, Don’t Say) giving advice and guidance on those sticky linguistic questions, referring, for example, to the verb prioriser (to prioritise) as “a barbarism”.

Don’t panic

For those of us using English, it’s really a case of going with the flow on a tide that’s unlikely to turn.

As long as people want to get across what they mean, they’ll find words to do so.

I’ll continue onboarding.

Back to Home

Engaged not enraged – don’t just rely on your spellchecker

Running spellchecker isn’t enough to guarantee a really good proofread.

Back in the 1990s, the brilliant Graham Rawle’s Lost Consonants column in The Guardian was comic genius. It was at the same time extremely simple and extremely funny.

By removing a single letter from a sentence, the whole meaning changed with magnificent results, not forgetting Rawle’s distinctive and quirky illustrations. Good proofreading involves a lot more than simply running your spellchecker.

Good proofreading involves a lot more than simply running your spellchecker.

Likewise, the great Lawrence Durrell’s 1957 short novel Esprit de Corps includes the chapter Frying the Flag, featuring the Central Balkan Herald, edited by sisters Bessie and Enid Grope.

Due possibly to a combination of elderly minds, even older equipment and staff not quite up to the job, the fictional paper regularly featured headlines that were quite far off what was intended. Oh, the shame of the ‘Minister Fined for Kissing in Pubic’.

But any of those Lost Consonants, or Enid and Bessie’s dubious headlines would have made it comfortably through a spellchecker.

Just like Rawle and Durrell, in your writing you may well have fully intended to mention Harold and his twee jacket, or how more dogs had babies this year… but the chances are that you didn’t.

Good proofreading involves a lot more than simply running your spellchecker, so once you’ve done that take some time to look again:

Read the text aloud

Put on your best radio newsreader voice and entertain your listeners. If you stumble over a word or phrase, the chances are your readers will too.

Read it backwards

Not sdrawkcab ti daer, but backwards it read. Treat every word separately and you’re more likely to read what’s there, not what you expect to be there. 

Read it several times, concentrating on different aspects

On each read-through focus solely on headings, pull-quotes, chart titles, hyperlinks etc. 

Consider using a style guide

Make a list of words and terms that you use regularly, for instance times and dates, people’s names, tricky words etc. and check against it to make sure you’re being consistent.

The loyal readers of the Central Balkan Herald knew what to expect and suffered it with weary resignation. Your audience may not be so patient.

Get your readers engaged, not enraged.

Back to Home

Should I be using a style guide for my business writing?

It doesn’t have to be long, but creating and using a style guide is a good idea.

Find out how to create a simple one here.

There’s no doubt that good writing makes for engaged readers, which is after all what you’re trying to achieve.

“Blue and green should never be seen.”
“Never wear brown in town.”

I heard both of these snippets of worldly advice from my grandmother, but sticking rigidly and unswervingly to rules isn’t what it’s all about.

There are any number of men and women stylishly sporting brown shoes around the office these days, and fashion watchers generally don’t raise an eyebrow at a navy-emerald combo.

No matter what you’re writing: blog posts, site content, news stories, printed reports, fact sheets (need I go on?), it needs to be recognisable as you.

While you’re putting your efforts into a consistent look and feel through font, colour, images and layout etc., you also need to address consistency in your words.

If only I had a handy checklist…

Think of any major high street business – supermarkets are a good example – and ask yourself if you’re completely sure of how to write their name. Is there an s at the end? Do they use an apostrophe? Should that be & or and?  It doesn’t matter which you choose, but what’s important is that you do it consistently.

I’d like to think you’re quite comfortable with how to spell the name of your own business, but what about writing other things:

Do you use per centpercent%?
Do you co-operate and co-ordinate or cooperate and coordinate?
Is your event on 2nd September at 3pm or 02 Sep at 15:00?

It doesn’t matter which you choose, but what’s important is that you do it consistently.

Who are you talking to?

You know your readers better than anyone else, so you’ll know how to talk to them.

Do you want to be that chatty friend having a gossip and a laugh? A formal voice of authority imparting essential information? A kindly mentor, offering a helping hand?

All three examples are perfectly valid, but not all are right for your audience. Once you decide, stick to it.

It’s your call

Some major publications have very helpfully put their own style guide online, for example, The Guardian and National Geographic, while others, such as The New York Times, offer theirs for sale.

These can be hugely helpful, but they are necessarily long and will include a lot of information you won’t need. You can just as easily create a simple one of your own, containing just the bits you need.

Find out how to create a simple one here.

Even if you do use one from another source, it’s worth adding your own bits.

What you want to say is unique to your own business, so make sure that your readers are seeing the same things in the same way from start to finish.

  • You run a training organisation and often write about awards and qualifications. Make sure you’re consistent when you refer to a Master’s or master’s degree, NVQ level three or NVQ Level 3, a BTEC in Engineering or engineering etc.
  • You offer advice on financial matters. Ensure consistency when you offer factsheets or fact sheets, or write about £55 or £55.0096 euros or €96 etc.
  • You write a food and recipe blog. Keep an eye out for the way your recipes call for gramsgrammes or gteaspoons or tspsGas Mark 4or gas mark four etc.

You’ll have some real specifics for your own business that may not appear in mainstream style guides.

Just start with those and keep it growing as things crop up.

It’s a guide, not the law

Put away your handcuffs, language police.

Remember, while there are some hard and fast rules about writing English that probably shouldn’t be run roughshod over, such as ending a question with a question mark or sticking to received spelling conventions (people really aren’t going to know what you’re talking about otherwise) many other ‘rules’ are really just opinions.

And that includes not starting a sentence with a conjunction.

In his 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language, George Orwell summed it up nicely with his six rules, concluding “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous”.

If it sounds good and says what you want to say, go for it. Just do it consistently.

If you say it regularly, stick it in your style guide.

Back to Home