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Putting together an office style guide

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Which is correct: "E-Mail" or "e-mail"? "Red, white and blue" or "red, white, and blue"? "A.M." or "a.m."? Would everyone in your office answer the same way? If not, you could probably use an internal style guide.

Style guides don't dictate writers' individual style, or "voice," but answer grammar, punctuation and spelling questions like the ones above.

With one central "bible" that lays out writing rules, you'll spend less time going back and forth about whether a word should be hyphenated or capitalized or abbreviated. And once you outline the basics, it becomes easier to add on to it.

How to begin:

1. Ask colleagues to devise a list of vexing style questions. After several weeks, collect the list and start compiling a rough draft of your stylebook.

2. Find answers to your most common style questions in an existing stylebook. Refer to one used in your industry or to one of the two most popular: The Chicago Manual of Style or The Associated Press Stylebook.

Sometimes, you'll find no definitive answer. Example: Associated Press does not use a serial comma before the last item in a list—"red, white and blue"—while Chicago Manual does. Take your pick; just be consistent.

3. Structure your stylebook using the section headings below. Under each section, list items alphabetically, so people will be able to find what they need quickly. Use plenty of examples when explaining grammar rules, to illustrate your point.

Stylebook sections

  • Abbreviations and acronyms. Example: Can "company" be shortened to "co."? What acronyms, if any, are familiar enough to your audience to use without spelling them out on the first reference?
  • Capitalization. Example: Is it "Work/Life Task Force" or "work/ life task force"?
  • Grammar. Example: Guidelines on when to use "lie" vs. "lay."
  • Numerals. Examples: Do you write "ten" or "10"? "One hundred" or "100"?
  • Punctuation. Examples: Is it "A.M." or "a.m."? "E-Mail" or "e-mail"?
  • Spelling. Include an A-to-Z list of commonly misspelled words.
  • Internet guidelines. Example: "Website" or "web site"?
  • Guidelines that relate to your industry.

Remember to leave space to add items as questions pop up. And post the stylebook on your organization's intranet, so others can search online by word or phrase.

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