Who wants a new style guide for Christmas?

Word count: 750 words

Reading time: About 3 minutes

Today I answer a question from a reader who is looking for a new style guide ….

A reader named Michelle submitted the following question to the Publication Coach:

I work in a request for proposal (RFP) department for a financial institution. With a degree in Journalism, I have always referenced the AP Stylebook for writing guidelines, but my supervisor has asked me to find a writing guide more specific to proposal writing. Do you recommend anything?

Thanks for asking your excellent question, Michelle. I hope you don’t mind my turning it into a Christmas query! As well, let me begin by giving a little background for readers who don’t have any journalistic training.

While dictionaries tell us how to spell and define words, they stand mute on the question of when to use different versions of words. For example: Do you write “theater” or “theatre.” Do you show the numeral 100 or do you write “one hundred.” Do you put punctuation inside a bracket like this ?) or outside, like this )?

None of the examples above is incorrect. They are just different choices. But once you make a choice, you need to stick with it. So that everyone in any organization can be consistent, it’s helpful to have what’s called a style guide.

As you mentioned, the AP Stylebook is frequently the “go to” source for making these kinds of decisions in the U.S. — not just for newspapers but for many corporations as well.  (The CP Stylebook performs a similar role in Canada.) In the world of book publishing, the Chicago Manual of Style is often the arbitrator.

But each of these stylebooks is pretty general and your boss is right to be concerned about the specific needs facing your department and your industry. For example, I’m sure there are all sorts of financial terms that might be rendered as initialisms (e.g. IBM)  — and you likely need some “rules” as to which are okay to use.

Similarly, you’ll likely need some rules surrounding how numbers are presented. The AP/CP dictum, that numbers less than 10 are written out (e.g. “nine”) may not be detailed enough. For example, when you’re presenting a table, do you switch to numerals at that point? Do you write percent, per cent or simply show %. A good style guide will specify.

Note that “outsiders” may have a hard time discerning some of the rules. For example, when I worked in the newspaper industry in Canada our rule was always: Use the British spelling except where the American spelling is shorter. Thus, we wrote: “program” instead of “programme” but “color” instead of “colour.” Believe me, we always received a lot of angry mail about that choice! (The newspaper has since changed the rules and now includes the extra u.)

I contacted my own very knowledgeable copy editor to see if she could recommend a style guide for those who worked in financial services and all she could recommend was a Dictionary of Business Terms.

That said, my heartfelt advice is to start building your own style guide. You work at this company and thus you know exactly the kinds of writerly challenges you are most likely to be faced with. Approach it as most professional copy editors would: Make a few key decisions upfront and then add to the style guide over time, as issues arise. A style guide typically begins by stating which reference works (including which dictionary) the company will use and presents everything else, including individual words, in alphabetical order.

Fortunately, these days, we have computers to help us. See if your IT department can find space for your style guide on a server that will be universally accessible to everyone in your company.  And don’t make all the style decisions yourself. In order to get buy-in, you’ll need to survey your coworkers, your boss and even perhaps your boss’s boss.

Thanks for asking the question, Michelle. Showing some initiative in this area will likely make you a high-performer and will be an excellent addition to your resume. This sounds like a terrific new year’s project to me!