What is a style sheet?
A style sheet, or style guide, is a reference document you create to apply consistency to your writing.
Whether you are a major publishing house, a business, a blogger or a budding author, you can benefit from creating your own style sheet.
A style sheet is tailored to your own preferences or the conventions of the sector you work in. You make a decision on the points which are open to variation or debate and record them so that, from then on, you treat them exactly the same way each time you use them. This is particularly useful for areas such as:
Why do I need a style sheet?
Whether you like it or not, people will judge you and your company by the quality of your written materials. Poor spelling, bad grammar and inconsistency can be a major irritant to them.
These things can be a distraction for your readers, pulling them away from your message for a moment, and that moment can be enough for them to decide to look elsewhere – people have short attention spans!
A style sheet is an incredibly useful tool when you’re producing written content for your business – everything from emails and blog posts to websites and brochures – as the last thing you want is for your potential customers or clients to be distracted from your message.
Bear in mind that everything about how you present your business is part of your brand, including consistency in your copy – having a fabulous logo and professional images across all your materials and social platforms will be undermined by inconsistencies in how you present written information to your potential customers and clients. So why risk it?
Build your own style sheet if you:
Use your style sheet to record your decisions, and make sure people in your organisation know about it and – more importantly – use it.
Your style guide won’t be static because things will change – your business may diversify or you may move into new markets.
For example, if you landed a lucrative contract with a company in Slovenia, would you know offhand how to spell the name of the capital city?* Probably not, without looking it up.
So you look it up once, make a note on your style sheet and then relax knowing that the next time it comes up you can quickly and easily check the spelling without having to ask Mr Google.
*The capital of Slovenia is Ljubljana, And yes, I had to look it up to check the spelling!
Here’s what a basic style sheet can look like – a simple A-Z grid which you can gradually fill out with words, phrases and usage specific to your business and your own preferences.
But why not read on while I take a look in a bit more detail at a few of the areas that are worth covering in your style sheet.
Your style sheet should include any words or expressions that can be spelled in different ways.
We all recognise the difference between the US and British English versions of common words, such as labour/labor, centre/center and aluminium/aluminum. It’s important to pick one style and stick to it – either always US or always British English – so think of your audience and what their preference would be.
There are always exceptions to rules, and if you are involved in technical writing then there are circumstances where you have to use the US spelling of color and program, even when writing in British English. If you write in a technical field, my colleague John Espirian’s post covers this in more detail. If you don’t, then forget that I said this and move along sharply!
It’s also helpful to make a note of whether or not you use hyphens in certain words.
Do you prefer co-operate or cooperate? e-mail or email? anti-virus or antivirus?
Make sure that, whatever you decide, it’s carried through to all forms of the word, for example, co-operate, co-operation, co-operative, co-operating.
The –ize ending
Contrary to popular belief, an –ize ending does not indicate US spelling.
The –ize ending is correct in both US and British English so, again, choose one style and always stick to it.
Avoid mixing both –ize and –ise. You should never have a sentence like this:
I realised that my desk was disorganized so I prioritised the problem and categorized my documents.
Be aware that there are a few words which never take an –ize ending in British English, such as analyse. Oxford dictionaries have a useful summary on their website.
You should have a consistent approach to how abbreviations are expressed, in particular whether or not you want to use full stops. For example:
Leaving out the full stops gives a cleaner look and many people, and most style guides, now prefer it.
Think carefully about using too many abbreviations. Although a shared shorthand can be useful, particularly in internal communications where everyone is clear on their meaning, beware of assuming that they will be understood by your reader if you are writing for a wider audience.
If you must use them, it can be helpful to write the words out in full at their first use and put the abbreviation in brackets. For example, in a patient information leaflet you might write:
A common reason for having a total knee replacement (TKR) is severe arthritis of the knee joint. You will be in hospital for three or four days when you have your TKR.
Did you know?
Strictly speaking, abbreviations are made when you leave off the end of a word, such as Fri for Friday or ed for edition.
Although most people would use the term abbreviations for the examples I used above, technically speaking the correct term for them is initialisms, as you are using the initials of the original words. Other examples are BBC, CNN and RSVP.
A subset of initialisms is acronyms. These are also formed from the initial letters of the words, but they are pronounced as words themselves. Some examples of acronyms are UNICEF, FIFA and AWOL.
Now, you might never need to know the difference between an abbreviation, an initialism and an acronym, but isn’t it rewarding to learn something new?
Whatever you call them, the important thing is that you treat them consistently every time they appear in your writing.
This is a difficult area for many people. Just because something is Important To You Or Your Business, doesn’t mean it should be capitalised.
Avoid overusing capitals as it can look self-important and fussy.
Generally, organisations or titles should be lower case unless they are used alongside the name or in full:
the chairman, the president, the police but
Chairman Mao, President Obama, Police Scotland
If you’re unsure about what to capitalise (and it’s a difficult area which many editors struggle with because there are no hard and fast rules) you can look at the relevant sections in a few different style guides (see Resources) to see what they suggest and base your decisions on them.
Using a variety of number styles is a common mistake. A generally accepted rule of thumb is:
‘We’re selling two product ranges at a 25% discount for the next 12 days.’
There are situations where these rules don’t apply. For example I would usually advise you not to start a sentence with numerals, but to spell out the word instead:
I met him again 12 years later.
Twelve years later, I met him again.
As with everything, styles change over time, and, particularly when writing web content, numerals are used much more commonly now, so making the distinction between numerals above and below 11 is not as necessary.
The important thing is to think about what’s best for the reader and the medium you’re using – print or digital – and then be consistent in applying it.
Think about how you’d like to style dates. The order of day and month, and the use of commas and –st, –nd, –rd, etc. are up to you.
For example these are all correct:
The last one is US style so, again, think carefully about who will be reading your content.
I would always advise against using ordinals, i.e. leave out the –st, –nd, –rd, as these are not necessary and are now considered old-fashioned by many style guides.
Do you prefer to use the 12-hour or 24-hour clock?
Do you like to use am and pm (or a.m. and p.m.) or not?
Whether you say:
is entirely up to you, but keep the same style on all your materials.
Preferred words and words to avoid
You may want to detail particular language that you want to include, or avoid, in your style sheet.
For example, it is important to be inclusive in your writing, and many companies are adopting a gender-neutral position. Among other things this can include:
Although many of us will have been taught that to use they as a singular pronoun (in place of either he or she) is incorrect, language changes over time, and many linguists and editors now support its use.
As a starting point, have a look at these useful guidelines from Princeton University on gender-neutral language, with examples and suggestions.
When writing for business it’s important to use plain English which engages your reader, answers their questions and demonstrates how you can help them.
This means using clear, accessible text with no jargon or needlessly complex sentences.
The Plain English Campaign produces several guides, including How to write in plain English.
1. Keep your style decisions consistent across all your content – website, blogs, flyers, business cards, posters – everything!
2. Your style sheet isn’t static – each time you come across a new word, phrase or expression which needs a decision, add it.
3. If you have a lot of content, or you don’t have time, or you lack confidence in your decisions, consider hiring an editor to help you develop a style sheet for your business. You can find out how to go about finding a professional editor in these blog posts:
How to find a professional proofreader: part one looks at where to look to find a reputable proofreader or editor.
How to find a professional proofreader: part two outlines six questions you should ask when deciding which editor or proofreader to hire.
Are good spelling and grammar really that important for my website?
Still not sure?
Not yet convinced that taking the time to create a style sheet is that important?
Do you think there are better things you could be doing for your business with your time?
Do you think that your customers are pretty relaxed about these things and won’t mind a few mistakes? After all, you’ve got a really great service/product.
Then read on just a little bit longer.
A recent survey of 1,000 web users by Dejan Marketing found that the top indicators of trustworthy online content were: title, spelling, grammar, style, language and presence of quick answers.
Another survey of over 1,000 shoppers, carried out by Global Lingo, revealed that 59% of Britons wouldn’t use a company that had obvious grammatical or spelling mistakes on its website or marketing material.
Have you checked yours yet?
There are many different style guides you can consult.
Which one you choose to follow will depending on your sector and your audience.
Here are a few of my favourites.
Thomas, C., Your House Style: Styling your words for maximum impact, 2nd ed., Society for Editors and Proofreaders, 2014.
A handy booklet full of excellent advice on establishing your own house style. Available from the Society for Editors and Proofreaders eitherin print or as a PDF.
New Hart’s Rules: The handbook of style for writers and editors, 2nd ed., Oxford University Press, 2014.
One of the leading authorities on style in British English. Available from Amazon.
The Chicago Manual of Style: The essential guide for writers, editors and publishers, 16th ed., University of Chicago Press, 2010.
Although an American publication, this is also a comprehensive resource if you write in British English. Available from Amazon.
The Guardian and Observer Style Guide is very thorough on current usage and style, and isn’t just for journalists. You can also follow their very entertaining Twitter account @guardianstyle. Here’s an example:
Do you have a style sheet for your business? If not, has this inspired you to think about creating one? Let me know in the comments, and if you’ve any questions I’d be happy to help.