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A question of style (guides)

Yves Saint Laurent famously said that ‘Fashions fade, style is eternal’. Obviously, he was talking about the clothes we wear, but the words we choose to use – and how we use them – are enduring signifiers of our editorial style.

Yves Saint Laurent famously said that ‘Fashions fade, style is eternal’. Obviously, he was talking about the clothes we wear, but the words we choose to use – and how we use them – are enduring signifiers of our editorial style.

In a previous blog, we explained that a style guide is a useful tool to help get the most out of an editorial service. Simply put, a style guide is a set of rules and principles that editors and proofreaders follow to ensure that written copy is consistent. It is also a living working document to help the whole organisation collaborate to reinforce the organisation’s brand and tone of voice.

As a company having a style and sticking to it presents a professional image to your clients and ensures that your messaging is clear. It also saves lots of time when making editorial decisions internally or outsourcing work to agencies. For example, when do you use an em dash, en dash or hyphen? And is it acceptable to use the Oxford comma?

How to compile a style guide

Companies usually compile style guides by borrowing an existing style guide from another organisation and using that as a template. This is a useful way to get started because it gives you a framework to use as a basis for your own, unique style guide. A style guide may also be compiled initially as a section of your brand guidelines.

When starting out, your style guide doesn’t have to be pages and pages long. It’s good to first consider some common areas of contention. You will probably find that the more publications you create, the longer your style guide gets.

Preferred format

Although they are often combined in one large document, many proofreaders and copy-editors prefer working with separate guides for writing and tone of voice, editorial style and preferred spellings, online style, the design and colour palette and trademark and logo use.

Preferred spelling

We also like to know which spelling to use (UK or US for example), as well as examples of which words to use when there are multiple options, for example: advisor/adviser; cooperate/co-operate; policymaker/policy-maker; inquiry/enquiry.

General rules

Suggested points to cover in your style guide include

  • social media messaging
  • inclusive language
  • preferred abbreviations
  • terms to avoid
  • overused words or clichés to avoid
  • contractions
  • common acronyms
  • jargon
  • a style for references and footnotes
  • a style for in-text citations
  • up-to-date industry-specific terms

How do we work with style guides?

At Accuracy Matters, when taking a brief for any piece of work, we ask if a style guide already exists. If it does we can edit/proofread the document concerned and our editorial queries will mostly be answered by referring to the style guide.

If a client doesn’t already have a style guide, then we will often have to make style decisions as we go along and reflect those decisions back to the client in the form of a short Word document when we return the edited/proofread item. The client will then need to review and approve or disapprove these style decisions which adds time to their production process.

It’s really helpful if one person client side can ‘own’ and update the style guide. That way they can collate and arbitrate among colleagues to get to a final decision. It’s also helpful to gain wider buy-in by inviting examples of correct and incorrect use from field staff, office staff, and PR and communications teams. After all, there will always be different opinions, but a style guide saves time in the long run.

How can we help you with your style guide?

Over time (and as mentioned above) style guides have a habit of growing and growing and can quite quickly become unmanageable. If this sounds familiar to you, then like a fashion stylist let loose in your wardrobe, we can review your style guide and give it an overhaul.

Alternatively, if you don’t have a style guide and don’t know where to start, just ask us: We may not be familiar with this season’s ‘It’ bag, but we do know our bullet lists from our numbered lists!


Photo by Andrey Zvyagintsey on Unsplash

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