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The Business Writer’s Guide to Great Style

The Business Writer’s Guide to Great Style

Stop for a minute and examine your company’s written communication.

Notice the spelling of words such as organisation/organization. How do the people in your company write numbers when communicating with clients? Do they know that acronyms can cause confusion? For example, BA can have different meanings in different industries. Try these for size: business analyst, British Airways, Bachelor of Art (degree) or even bad attitude.

This is the perfect time to create a style guide for your company.

How can a style guide improve communication?

A style guide creates consistency. This important business document provides a roadmap for internal and external written communications.

If everyone is on the same page (pun intended), there is less chance for misunderstandings to creep in. This includes standardising spelling conventions (American versus British), formatting of documents (headers, paragraphs, document length) and how to write acronyms and numbers.

A good style guide should also include brand principles. It is important that people in the company understand how they should write and stylise the company name. The use of logos, colour and symbols is an area often neglected in written communication and the reason for the marketing department’s headaches.

The style guide is crucial business tool to help people in the company, as well as freelancers, to follow the company’s style of business language.

Getting started

Many companies are unsure about the guidelines that should be included in the style guide.

The first tip is to examine the current documents in the company. Make a list of the types of errors that are made consistently. People who are writing in the company may use jargon, complicated terms, passive voice. Language usage may vary from department to department. Make a list. This list will form the foundation for the company style guide.

Suggestions for style guide content

We have compiled a basic list of the things that should be included in your company’s style guide. Please note these are merely suggestions. You need to define the literacy level of your client base, what information is important to your company and the industry your company services.

  1. Spelling
    • Decide which spelling convention your company needs to implement. There are two kinds: British English (UK) and American English (US). The international trend is British English
    • Choose a dictionary as the company’s base for spelling references. We recommend Oxford Dictionary (online reference: oed.com and www.oxforddictionaries.com)
    • List common spelling errors to differentiate between US and UK spelling. Example: specialise (UK) vs. specialize (US)
  2. Punctuation
    • The apostrophe is the most misunderstood punctuation. Ensure that people understand the usage
    • Include bullet point usage in the guide and the use of full stops and capital letters
    • Highlight the difference between hyphens and dashes and usage. Example: hyphens are used in compound nouns and adjectives
    • Use of ellipses (…)
    • Square brackets and parenthesis (additional information)
    • Capitalisation is interesting because writers tend to become lazy and forget the rules of capitalisation. Include a section about capitalising job titles
    • AbbreviationsThe rules of the following forms of abbreviations should be explained and examples provided:
      • Acronyms and Initialisms
      • Ampersand (&) and Symbols (%)
      • Abbreviations allowed in the company and punctuation rules. Examples: etc., Mr
  1. Numbers
    • Explain when numbers should be written in words or numerically
    • Date, time, decimals and measurement standardisation
    • The use of terms like “more than” and “fewer”
  2. Active vs. Passive voice
    • Explain the difference between active and passive. Provide suitable business examples to explain the differences
  3. Pronouns
    • Standardise viewpoint appropriate documents. Example: Marketing and sales communication can make use of “you” but technical documents may only use third person or neutral viewpoints
  4. Jargon and Technical Terms
    • Acronyms often fall under this list as they become habits when they are used on a daily basis in written and spoken forms
    • Jargon is industry specific and creates miscommunication so should be avoided in business writing
    • Create rules for the use of technical terms
  5. Readability Statistics
    • This is a useful electronic tool to use in the organisation and should be activated in MS Word
    • Create standards for passive voice and sentence length
    • Ensure that the spell checker is activated for MS Word documents and email and language is set to check UK English
  6. Document Format
    • Create a standard for the look and feel of all business documents. The formatting of written communication can be department specific or one rule for the entire company.
    • The following conventions should be specified:
      • Headings and levels of headings
      • Body text layout
      • Page numbering
      • Italics, bold face, capitalisation and underlining
      • Referencing
      • Company specific type face and font size
  1. Trademarks
    • This is often left out of style guides as many companies prefer to include this in their brand or communication guides
    • Trademarks refers to any words, symbols or designs that the company uses to identify their products or services
    • Do not use trademarks as verbs

Need help? Let Writer’s Support assess your current style guide. We can also compile a style guide for your company to ensure that your company complies with best business communication practice.

Want to do it on your own? Email writer@ulrikehill.co.za for a style guide template.

This article was published on Writers Write blog 14 September 2013. This is an edited version of the original article.