House Styles Are in Fashion
10 November, 2022
It’s time to talk about style, darlings—and specifically about setting the style.
You’re the editor now, but the state of the prose in your company is—well, darlings, let’s just say it’s not tidy. Many people have put their own distinctive touches on everything they’ve distinctly touched, and it’s a complete mishmash. Even your company’s name is written four different ways. It’s so bad your company’s lawyers are charging extra. You need a real, well-made house style. You know it, and they know it. So now you’re putting together a style guide.
But… how do you do that? Well, to start with, darlings, as with a clothing style, you don’t just open the closet and use whatever’s in it. You need a plan. So get an espresso, pull up a chair, and let’s talk.
First, what will be your reference style manual? Whose lead are you following on points of punctuation and usage? (You didn’t think you were going to build this from zero, did you? Of course not! You don’t have the time to reinvent the wheel—or centuries of progress in punctuation.)
Depending on the kind of business you’re in, it could be the American Medical Association Manual of Style or the New York Public Library, or the Associated Press, or BuzzFeed, or—the biggest boss of them all—Chicago, style guide of the big shoulders, as Carl Sandburg said. Make that essential choice, and the rest is… “personal touches.”
Your reference style manual won’t lay down the law on absolutely everything. You’ll likely want to specify a few common issues, such as whether to capitalize a full sentence after a colon, whether to spell out numbers between 10 and 100, how to capitalize subheadings, and how to write dates. You’ll also want to include rules that are straight out of your style reference but you keep having to look up because they come up so often (certain questions of italics, capitalization, and hyphenation, for example).
But also, some of the things your style reference does have a recommendation on may not happen to be the way you prefer—or the way it’s been done since time immemorial at your company. Why should you try to change it all? If your company has used numerals for all numbers since the dawn of time, you may find that they will more readily replace their editor-in-chief than replace every number under 10 in kajillions of words of text. Just a word to the wise.
The Book of the Word
You will also need to choose a reference dictionary. Your chosen style manual doesn’t include absolutely every word you’ll need to check the spelling of. And just as fashion in London are very different to fashion conventions in New York the same is true for your dictionary. You have several decent choices (we do not talk about the indecent ones). If you’re in the UK, you may consider the Oxford English Dictionary; in the US, you could opt for Merriam-Webster, which is the dictionary preferred by The Chicago Manual of Style. If you’re not sure, sit down with a short list of words you have strong opinions about how to spell, and check out the websites of the dictionaries you’re considering to see which one agrees with you most. (Wait, websites? Well, you could choose a dictionary that’s available only in print, but that means every time anyone wants to look up a word, they’ll have to find the nearest copy and flip through it. Also, websites get updated every so often with new words. Surprise! They haven’t stopped making words, and you’re going to have to use some of those new ones sooner or later.) Don’t forget that many dictionaries will show several spellings for words. You’ll need to specify whether you’re following the first listed spelling, or…
It may be that your CEO, and/or everyone in your industry, prefers a different spelling of a given word than the one listed in your dictionary of choice. Is it health care, health-care, or healthcare? Are there specialized terms used in your industry? This kind of thing is the core wardrobe of a style sheet. You’ll need to include a section for it, and you’ll need to keep updating it regularly and promulgating your updates to everyone who must follow the house style. But stay tuned: spelling isn’t the only kind of thing that will be updated regularly. Style doesn’t stay put, as a trip to your top-choice online shopping sites will confirm.
Honey, this is the real thing. This is it. There is nothing, nothing more important in a company’s text than how you handle the company’s name and any trademarks it owns.
And yes, we know that not everyone in the executive chain and sales department is that careful with silly things like spelling and punctuation. If your company is called Carlys, the odds are incredible that you’ll see it spelled Carly’s by many people, even some who work there, and then there’s the matter of the possessive: count all the instances of “Carlys products,” “Carlys’ products,” “Carlies’ products,” “Carly’s products,” “Carly’s’ products,” and “Carlys’s products,” and have a little betting pool on which one wins.
Don’t use a poll to decide which to put in your style guide, though! Use your informed knowledge, your professional judgment, the advice of your reference style manual, the personal inclination of the CEO, and—especially—whatever the legal department says are the registered trademarks, and set down one of these in the style guide… along with the possessive of every other brand your company owns. Your lawyers will be happy, your ad agency will be happy, and every editor who needs to edit a document about your company (even editors who don’t work for your company) will be happy.
You are in a world full of people, and no matter how little they may seem to care about words, they all care about their own names. Put in your style sheet the proper spelling of the name of every person in your company, and every person who’s important to your company (such as client contacts). Include the proper form of their job title too—this can matter a lot. You could rely on the company directory, but can you rely on the person who updates the company directory?
What’s Just Not Done
There are some textual style sins that fall into the realm of the hideous faux pas. These include using words that seem to guarantee things you can’t guarantee (“always,” “never”), using a turn of phrase from a competitor’s marketing, or—worse—using insensitive language that will upset or hurt people. Keep track of these as they come up (and are flagged by other departments such as legal and marketing), but also proactively make a list of common turns of phrase that carry and reinforce subtle prejudices so you can flag them and suggest alternatives.
What Absolutely Must Be Done
There are also some things you just can’t do without—words that need to appear in certain contexts. This is often a matter of branding: since brand names are generally legally preferred to be modifiers of nouns, you’ll need to say what the nouns are. Set down “Scru-Off® widget strippers,” for instance, so no one puts it as “Scru-Off tidying devices” or, worse, just “Scru-Offs.” And there may also be disclaimers or legal statements that need to show up every time you talk about something, so the reader can put it in their pipe and smoke it.* (*No actual tobacco use is implied or intended.)
Fiddly Little Bits
Listen, darlings, if you’re paying attention to style, you’re paying attention to every little thing. If you miss the details, you’re just not quite there. Your chosen style master will already specify things like handling of quotation marks and punctuation around them, but you really should set down how acronyms and other abbreviations are handled. You need to list the proper form for capitals and periods (is “point of sale” to be abbreviated “PoS” or “POS” or “P.o.S.” or…) and, as needed, plural and possessive for each (“P.o.S.es’”?!), but also specify whether you define them once per document, or once per section, or…
Tails Before Top Hat
We know, darlings, “It’s not how you feel, it’s how you look”—Billy Crystal said so. But style isn’t just how you look. It’s also how you do things. The song may go “I’m puttin’ on my top hat, tyin’ up my white tie, brushin’ off my tails,” but a good dresser will know that you put the top hat on last, not first. You have editorial processes, including lists of details to check; put checklists in your style guide to help people make sure that they’ve taken care of the right things in the right order. For instance:
- Resave the document with an updated file name.
- Run a replace-all to convert double spaces to single spaces.
- Run a replace-all to make sure all apostrophes are curly.
- Run a replace-all to make sure all quotes are curly.
- Turn on Track Changes.
Using Software to Enforce Your Style
It’s OK to use a little help. All the top style artists do. A house style is a lot to keep track of and, as fashionistas know, a good assistant can be simply indispensable. That’s why a sophisticated proofreading tool, such as PerfectIt™ is an absolute must in any writer or editor’s arsenal. Like all good style assistants, it will never tell you what to do; it just gently checks that you are doing what you really want to do. It’s an excellent way to enforce and promulgate all your house style decisions. Not only can it run consistency checks on points of punctuation, capitalization, usage, acronym definitions and more, but it can also check consistency with your own custom-made style guide. You can update it as often as you update your house style and share the updates with everyone in the company who uses it. So every time a new style faux pas emerges, you can add it to the style sheet in PerfectIt ensuring it reminds everyone never to commit such a shameful style crime again. PerfectIt can also check your documents against built-in style guides such as The Chicago Manual of Style and you can build in your own customizations on top of these.
If you haven’t tried PerfectIt yet, do that first, before you begin your style mission. You can try PerfectIt free for 14 days without having to provide any payment information so it’s worth exploring how it can help you.
Taking the Lead
The most important thing about setting a style, darlings, is that you need people to follow it, or why are you even bothering? This doesn’t just mean strutting your stuff in the spotlight. It means spreading the word and showing other people how. Clothing has its style magazines to make sure that the cosmopolitan world stays in vogue, but in your textual world, you’re the style chief. You can’t just print out a set of rules and pin them up on the wall somewhere. You have to keep them as accessible and inviting as possible. Put them on an internal site, for example. Organize it well. Make it interesting and usable. Remind people about it. Stage the occasional fashion show if you want. But, most of all, keep it collaborative and remember that a style isn’t a strict set of rules. It’s just an approach and, as with all styles, it will change and evolve with the people that use it.