Why Every Writer Needs a Style Guide

Every person who wants to be taken seriously as a writer should learn how to use a style guide. This article offers tips on how to create your own style guide so that your writing is clean, crisp, and consistent across all your writing platforms.

A style guide is an important tool for professional writers.

Being a good writer is about more than just using correct spelling and grammar.
Being a good writer is about more than just using correct spelling and grammar.

If you’re a storyteller, blogger, or freelance writer with your own site, consistency in the way you write and format your material is essential to building credibility as a reliable, trustworthy author. For example, if you use serial commas in one piece of writing and then not in another, or you capitalize all the letters in headings in one article, and then don’t do the same elsewhere, your readers might pick up a underlying vibe that your writing is inconsistent and scattered. Some readers may even wonder if your material is original or if it has been scraped from another site. Consistency in spelling, grammar, usage, and style can give your writing an edge over those who don't take the time to develop uniform writing and design habits.

What is a style guide? A style guide is a documented set of writing and design principles that are used consistently across all documents produced by a single publisher, institution or corporation. Style guides are used by all major online and print publications. Because major publications often hire freelance writers, they need to ensure consistency in English usage, grammar and the layout of an article. And since articles are shared by news wires, most professional journalists will write based on the Associated Press Style Book.

Corporations, government departments and publishers big and small often either use an external style guide such as the Chicago Manual of Style or they might use what is known as a house style guide. Some house style guides focus on graphic design, typography and the use of white space. House style guides used by web designers and online publishers might be more concerned with visual, technical and text styles over punctuation.

The essence of a house style guide is that it ensures uniform decision-making on punctuation and design elements that are malleable and differ from region to region, corporation to corporation and publisher to publisher.

Creating your own house style guide. Creating your own style guide is about paying attention to the choices you make when writing and formatting your material. The assumption here is that you already have a good grasp of spelling and grammar, and that you are simply documenting the decisions, whether consciously or unconsciously, that you make when more than one choice presents itself. Go through a selection of three to five of your most recent documents and make a list of some of your style preferences.

For example, here are some choices that one writer might make, while another might choose a different style:

  • Don't use serial commas (i.e.; “one, two and three”)
  • Don’t use end punctuation on bullets, except when a question mark is required
  • Capitalize the first word in each bullet
  • Capitalize all major words in headings (title case)
  • Use American English
  • Don’t hyphenate ‘website’ or ‘online’
  • Spell out all ordinals from first to ninth
  • Spell out numbers from one to nine and use
  • Arabic numerals for numbers greater than nine, except in the case of dates, time, addresses and phone numbers

Keep in mind that this is not an exhaustive list and you may find you make different style choices than the ones noted above. Perhaps you are a serial comma user. The point is that you're recording the choices that you make so that you'll never have to second guess your design process.

Keep the style sheet near your computer for easy reference. Having a style sheet is also important if you allow guest posts on your blog. You can send the style sheet to the guest blogger so that they can refer to it as they write. Or, you could simply explain your guest blogging policy and that you reserve the right to edit submissions according to your house style guide.

Consistency is key. By taking some time to create your own house style guide, you can keep track of your own personal writing and formatting choices and avoid presenting mix messages across the materials you proudly put your name on.

The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition
The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition

This is one of the best style guides for people who want to improve their writing skills.

 

English usage is sometimes more than mere taste, judgment and education - sometimes it's sheer luck, like getting across the street.

— E. B. White

© 2016 Sally Hayes

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Comments 1 comment

Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran 12 months ago from Atlanta, Georgia

I agree that a writer needs to be consistent in how they use capitals, numerals, and punctuation. Making your own style guide will help you do that. But if you are going to write professionally for a variety of media you need to go by their style requirements. Academia has its own style. Newspapers have their own. Fiction needs to adhere to the style of whomever you are soliciting. Again, being consistent is a good start. But I'd encourage any writer to invest in a few of the professional style books that you have listed in your hub.

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