Do You Use a Style Guide? You Should

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I’m currently reading Emmy Favilla’s upcoming book on language. She describes writing BuzzFeed’s first style guide, and it got me thinking about the different style guides I’ve used and how they’ve helped my writing. They’re especially useful when writing for different audiences and different countries.

What is a Style Guide?

A few of my clients decide they don’t need a style guide, so perhaps you don’t know what one is. It’s a set of rules outlining copy standards. They can be as extensive as all the grammar and punctuation rules (which is scarily complex thus my clients not needing one), or just including unusual details: names, jargon, and proprietary terms. The brief ones usually refer to a larger style guide and dictionary as their standard, thus how they can be brief.

In either form, a style guide sets the standard for a consistent voice across an organization. A few years ago during a website refresh, a colleague and I had very different views on phone number formatting. We were both convinced we were correct and to break the stand-off we agreed to use the AP Style Guide’s formatting. We both lost the argument but it was easier to implement a third party rule. Oh, and a style guide is sometimes called a style book.

Style Guide Options

As there are many different style guide options, I’m just going to mention the ones I’ve personally used (with a bonus of one I will be using because it’s so amazing. Weirdly enough I’ve never worked with a Canadian style guide and had no luck calling out for recommendations. If you know one in common usage please let me know. Second disclaimer: it’s a few years since I’ve written for Australian audiences. As with everything, supplement with your own research and proceed with caution.

Style Manual

Style Manual was the first style guide I used and ended up being a great help once Twitter came along. It’s very minimalistic, which is unusual for a government publication. I dropped the periods/full stops on abbreviations very early. The Style Manual hasn’t been updated since 2002 and is stupid-expensive in the US. Anyone want to buy my copy?

Style

Style is the style guide we were instructed to use in grad school. Our lecturers were former News Limited journalists so maybe that’s why they chose it. It’s one of the more scant style guides with more company and name formatting advice than punctuation. Like the Style Manual, it’s really out-of-date, so I’d be cautious with any internet related terms. And yes, I dropped the cap from internet. A quick Google search showed several Australian universities referencing Style, but I’m sure there’s something more useful.

AP Stylebook

This is my current go-to style guide. It’s the American journalist’s standard written by Associated Press. It’s also detailed. It gives grammar and punctuation, as well as clarification on names and terminology. The religion section was useful when working with a diocese and needing the correct titles and abbreviations for clergy. I use the online version because it’s easier and is updated more frequently. However, the print copy does allow for fun browsing to stumble upon something that may be useful later. The AP Stylebook has also been quick to include guidance referring to transgender people and updates to technology.

The Chicago Manual of Style

This is formal as a style guide gets without being academic. Many companies use it, but it has been slower to update. It was only this year they dropped the hyphen from email and the capital from internet. They also begrudgingly accept a singular they. While the formality pushes me towards the AP Style Book, it can work if your audience is more conservative.

BuzzFeed Style Guide

I admit I’ve been slow to embrace BuzzFeed and only learned of their style guide through Emmy’s book. It’s online and free to use, which is perfect to help the community contributors. The BuzzFeed Style Guide is one of the minimalist ones and designed to be dynamic covering lots of slang and pop culture jargon. I can’t imagine the Chicago Manual of Style choosing to include the punctuation formatting for an f-bomb in each form. It’s perfect for their more casual writing style, and as Emmy said in her book, language is dynamic. Clarity is more important than accuracy.

House Style Guides

You’re probably saying that none of these fit your brand or organization. Chances are you’re right and that’s where house style guides come in. Style and the BuzzFeed Style Guide are technically house guides that were shared (and monetized for Style). They are designed to supplement existing style guides and give customization.

BuzzFeed’s preferred dictionary for US/World style is Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition (m-w.com). In MW, the first spelling of a word should generally be used (unless it appears in the word list below or is preferred by the Associated Press Stylebook). The preferred style manual is the AP Stylebook. Please consult the Chicago Manual of Style for issues not covered by AP Stylebook as well as for more detailed information and discussion, where applicable. Generally, AP Style trumps Merriam-Webster, but any style point mentioned in this guide overrules those publications.

The above quote explains how BuzzFeed uses all the writing tools together.

Recommendations for Brands

The different style guide options can make it confusing to find what is best for your brand voice. If I was still working corporate finance, the Chicago Manual of Style would be my choice. Most of my work now is more casual and fun, so it has been the AP Stylebook. Since discovering the BuzzFeed Style Guide, I’m following their lead. They do include words that I’ll rarely (read, never) need but I like the standardization of things like caj (short for casual). I recommend you do the same.

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