Add polish and professionalism to your content by writing with style

When I say write with style, I’m not talking about dressing up like a Fashion Week model.

Fashion Week model

Photo via Two for Fashion on Flickr (CC license)

Nor am I talking about whether you write like Hemingway or Faulkner (or someone else), either.

I’m not even talking about whether you should dress like Hemingway or Faulkner when you’re at the keyboard. (Could be interesting, but not necessary.)

No, I’m talking about what rules of style you follow. By the rules of style, I mean things such as:

  • Do you spell out numbers (“one”) or use numerals (“1”)?
  • Do you add academic credentials after someone’s name (Joe Smith, Ph.D.)?
  • Do you capitalize the first letter of each word in your headlines?

Style rules are separate from grammar, spelling and usage questions, which are usually covered in grammar manuals and dictionaries. However, style manuals may note a preference when there is more than one way to spell a word, for example, or when there’s a preferred option for a controversial grammar matter.

Following a consistent set of style rules — on your website or across your company’s publications, for example — makes your communications more polished and professional. Clear-cut style rules can also end at least some of the nit-picking edits about capitalization, titles and other issues from reviewers who should focus on more substantive issues.

Many professionals in other fields — finance, law, etc. — learned a particular style in school or became accustomed to a certain style. They may believe that’s THE rule. But in most style matters, there isn’t a single authoritative rule that everyone follows. Rather, there are different sets of commonly accepted rules. Professionals (and organizations that want to convey professionalism) pick a set and stick to them.

So where’s the rule book?

There are several professional style manuals that are widely accepted. Some are more common in certain professions or industries, but any of them make a good starting point. Just make sure that what you pick is appropriate for your writing project.

Here are three common style manuals to get you started:

Associated Press Stylebook. This is the manual for Associated Press journalists. It’s also used by most American newspapers and is widely consulted in journalistic and PR writing generally. It’s the style I most often use. The AP Stylebook is shorter than some of the more academic-oriented alternatives, and so easier to learn. It also has the advantage of being the style that readers, whether they realize it or not, see most often.

Chicago Manual of Style. This is widely used for academic and book publishing. It is highly respected, but also quite a bit thicker than the AP Stylebook. That’s good when you need a ruling on an obscure issue, bad when you’re trying to figure out the rule for using numerals vs. writing out numbers. The Chicago Style rule on how to write numbers, for example, is a good bit more complex than AP’s.

Yahoo! Style Guide. Yahoo! publishes a style guide for writing online. Unlike its traditional paper-based competitors, this one is available for free on the web. It’s also more focused on some of the unique needs of digital writing.

How do I learn all this stuff?

Even professional editors keep copies of the appropriate manual at hand. No one remembers every rule.

However, to make use of these style guides, you’ve got to know what they cover and what they don’t. I don’t know any shortcuts for that process other than to get the books (or visit the website) and read them.

In college, when I was learning AP style in a copyediting class, I recall the professor having us review a couple of chapters a week. That’s probably a pretty good method to learn, over time, what’s in the style guide so you know when it’s time to look it up.

Lots of professional writers and editors also reread style manuals periodically to remind themselves of the rules and lessons they contain.

But my style questions are unique!

Of course, lots of companies will have style issues that are unique to a particular industry, profession or brand. And sometimes there is no style manual ruling for an organization- or subject-specific question.

So, in addition to formal style guides, many organizations develop in-house style guides. These are typically created by staff writers and editors. They’re often as simple as a Word document or PDF that’s shared on a file server or printed out for the communication team’s desks.

How do you go about developing an effective house style manual? It doesn’t have to be hard.

As you go through the writing and editing process, note style issues that come up. For example “Do we use middle initials on first reference for senior executive in company news releases and web copy?”

Make a decision on that issue — maybe you can make it yourself, maybe you need your boss’ OK, or maybe there’s a committee or formal process. Whatever the case, once a decision is made (we use middle initials, we don’t use middle initials, we follow the individual executive’s personal preference), record that in your style manual.

Most style manuals are organized alphabetically, so the middle initial question might go under “M” for “middle initial,” or maybe under “I” for initial. You might choose to put it under “I” as that’s a more general category (and perhaps more intuitive for someone looking for the answer to this question). But you also might put a note under “Middle Initial” in the “M” section noting that the reader should check the “Initials” entry.

Have style manuals you love to refer to? Tricks for keeping your style consistent? Let us know what you think in the comments.

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