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Ellen Cline, writer
Creative communication that markets, informs, and entertains

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Style manuals and style guides—tools for building consistency

Author: ; Published: Apr 5, 2010; Category: Business Writing, Communications Tools, Editing and Proofing, Message Simplicity; Tags: , , , , , ; No Comments

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Choosing and using a style manual and producing and using an in-house style guide help a company create and maintain consistency in their communications. Consistency always furthers an organization’s professional image.

The style manual most people seem to have heard of is the Associated Press Stylebook. I’ve done work for organizations where I’ve been told things like: We follow AP style but we use the title Dr. for our researchers preceding their names which AP says not to do. Then the client might go on to tell me several other ways their house style diverges from AP style.

Exceptions like this should be covered in a company style guide. The in-house style guide might spell out items like the usage of the company product names and logos, but it also can detail where company usage differs from the guidelines set forth in the style manual.

I did not study Journalism in college so I did not learn about AP style until later in my career. When I had to follow it for some projects my first thought was, you’ve got to be kidding. To me, the book has always been difficult to use and illogical as it has:

  • No index. 
  • A system for filing items under alphabetical titles that seemed haphazard, at best. 
  • Rules that supposedly stemmed from the limitations of metal type.

Even though it is considered a guide for academic writing, I prefer the Chicago Manual of Style as a reference. It has an index so you can find things. And there are a lot more things to find as the book is really comprehensive, including information about grammar. Not everything in it applies to every project. But it’s somewhere to start.

First, if your group does not have a particular style manual it follows, you might want to decide which would be best suited for your needs. Elizabeth G. Frick and Elizabeth A. Frick wrote an article in the Society for Technical Communication magazine, Intercom, which discussed style manuals and style guides and referred readers to a handy style manual matrix they created that compares the different style manuals. Their chart shows the history and purpose of each book, and can help you choose which you might want to use.

Style manuals do differ on what they feel is correct on topics like hyphenation, formatting of web addresses, and the serial comma, aka the Oxford comma. Believe it or not, people get excited about whether or not it is proper to use that last comma in a series before the “and.” I recently found out there’s even a Facebook group, "Students for the Preservation of the Oxford Comma." (For the record, I like the serial comma as it does add clarity in many situations. AP, however, says no to the serial comma.)

Style manuals give you rules and standards for writing and formatting different types of written materials. They do not all agree on what the standards are. Your company or organization may have decided which style manual to follow, but then there are inevitably exceptions to the rules. In that case a style guide might be created, just for your organization.

Your style guide doesn’t need to repeat what is in your chosen style manual; it can just talk about where your in-house style differs from the reference book and tackle issues of interest to your organization.