Stop Putting it Off: Create a Style Guide

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Here’s some quick and easy advice on how to start — or simply shape up — your organization’s editorial style guide.

By Kim Howard, CAE

I have worked for five associations, and each of them had their own style guide. Here’s what I have learned: Other than the publications and communications team, few people on staff really look at or implement anything from the style guide. The publishing staff becomes the de facto internal proofreaders of most or all content, both printed and digital, with the communications staff coming in close second. Therefore, your team will likely be the gatekeepers of the style guide.

Here are my top tips for creating a style guide:

  1. Don’t make it complicated. Pick one professional style guide (AP or Chicago, for example) that works for your publication and organization. Rely on that as the first source.
  2. You will likely need a customized cheat sheet, which will be your second source. Just accept that fact and implement one. Each industry has words, phrases, or acronyms that they customize. For example, general counsel is a term that my prior association preferred to use. Others in the legal profession use general counsels. Shudder. But you get my meaning here. Try your best to keep the customized cheat sheet short and alphabetized. If you have to divide it into sections, you’ve overdone it already.
  3. Sharing is caring. You will need to share this cheat sheet with internal staff, outside writers, or anyone else who works with you and your organization on a regular basis.
  4. Schedule regular reviews of the cheat sheet to make sure that it’s still working and accurate. Remember the recent grammar drama surrounding "more than” and "over” — I am still not over that one. An annual review should be sufficient.
  5. Assign one of your publishing staff as the go-to person regarding the style guide. He or she will know exactly where the file is on the shared drive and be the one who is most interested in making sure everyone adheres to the style guide. Depending upon how your staff is structured, this is a good project for someone new to your association because it serves a two-fold purpose: It quickly helps your new hire become familiar with your association’s style, and it gives them ownership of a project that even the CEO must adhere to.
  6. Make sure the style guide is clear and needs no explanation. I mentioned keeping the cheat sheet simple because the idea behind that is if your staff plays the lotto, wins, and all quit at once, the new hires would be able to step in and understand your association’s style guide.
  7. Keep everyone in the loop on updates. When you do send out the cheat sheet, update to all staff and highlight any changes in yellow so that everyone can quickly see what the changes are.

Style guides are a good quick reference source for staff. But remember that even the most seasoned journalist often submits content that needs copyediting and proofreading.

Kim Howard, CAE is an award-winning association publisher and writer who runs her own consulting firm Write Communications, LLC. She is also immediate past president of the AM&P board of directors.

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