When you read the phrase “house style guide,” do you think it’s time to replace the office carpet? Many employees don’t know anything about their company’s style guide, or even that there is such a thing as an established writing style for a business. That’s a missed opportunity, because many customers find your business online and in print—not in physical offices and brick-and-mortar stores.
Even among those familiar with the idea of house style, often the only opinion hazarded has to do with the authoritative-sounding Oxford comma or the edgy-sounding serial comma (which are actually the same thing).
Although debates over the serial comma can be heated or humorous, in most cases, there’s no right or wrong. It’s a matter of style.
A House Style Guide Puts You on Firm Footing
Think of writing style as the floor on which you build your company’s communications. If the floor has a loose flap of carpet, staffers and visitors will trip on it or divide their attention to step around it.
The same is true of sudden shifts in style. If your readers—be they co-workers or customers—have become accustomed to serial commas, book titles in quotation marks, and “website” as one word with no capital letters, changes from the usual way of presenting this information are distracting.
Even the readers who don’t consciously notice the inconsistencies will feel less surefooted as they waste brainpower on making sense of words and phrases all over again.
The readers who do notice the haphazardness may judge your company more harshly. Noticing the distraction, they may become irritated. They might even question your professionalism and attention to detail.
If you can’t get the little things right, readers won’t trust you on the big things.
Learn and Customize Your Style
A house style guide presents a polished image to the rest of the world. If your company already has a style guide, find out what it is and take some time to get familiar with it. And if your company doesn’t have a style guide, it needs one.
Most businesses don’t build a style guide from the ground up. Several already exist, each with its own advantages. The two most commonly chosen by businesses are the Associated Press Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style. Most U.S. newspapers, websites, and public relations firms use the AP Stylebook, which is relatively uncomplicated and succinct. Chicago is more complex and addresses more situations.
Many companies specify a preferred dictionary as well, something that reflects geographic location.
Even companies that use a style manual often add their own points of house style. For instance, although Tendo Communications uses AP style as its main guide, the company diverges from AP by using the serial comma because that humble punctuation mark can prevent double-takes and misunderstandings.
Your company may prefer sentence case over title case for headlines and titles; not only is it modern-looking and easy to read, it spares you repeated trips to AP or Chicago to figure out how long a preposition has to be to get capitalized.
Even a company that hews closely to a style guide and an approved dictionary may need to make its own specialized word list.
Spruce It Up
If your company doesn’t already have a style guide, start small. Pick a basic style guide and dictionary. As you use them, you’ll start to notice where your company’s needs and image diverge from what’s set down in black and white. Make your word list and your list of exceptions, and you’ll be customizing the beige carpet of a standard style guide.
Expect to update your style guide. Every year, new words are coined and formerly forbidden phrases gain acceptance. Your house style evolves with your business.
Go ahead: Replace the carpet. Consistent adherence to a house style guide makes your business look more polished, more organized, and more up-to-date. And most importantly, it makes it easier for your audience to pay attention to what matters—your business.
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