What Makes a Truly Great Corporate House Style?
27 March, 2023
Being an editor for a corporation seldom comes with renown and glory. It is a job for people who get quiet satisfaction from excellent process, first-rate clarity, creamy smooth idioms and imagery, and unparalleled consistency (wait, how can it be consistent if it’s unparalleled?). But there are always moments when we want to be among the greats, up with the authors of books we have on our shelves: Benjamin Dreyer of Penguin Random House, Carol Fisher Saller of the Chicago Manual of Style, Mary Norris of The New Yorker, Emmy Favilla of BuzzFeed…
Alas, your desk job at Megacorp will never get you into hardcover. But though it doesn’t come with cachet, it comes with cash, eh! And you can still get the quiet satisfaction of turning out beautiful pieces, even if they’re user manuals, annual reports, press releases, advertisements…
The first thing you need for truly great corporate documents is a truly great style guide. Knowing it all off the top of your head is not good enough. You’re not the only person handling the text and you may leave the company someday. More importantly, no human can ever be one hundred percent consistent.
Making a great style guide will take time, sustained effort, dedication, and knowing what you’re doing. But here are twelve principles to keep in mind as you climb that stairway to textual heaven.
1. State Your Mission
It may seem obvious to you why you’re making a style guide, but there are two good reasons to present a statement of mission or purpose up front: to inspire and to sell. You want to inspire your users to use it and to feel good about using it, and you want to sell it (and yourself) to management so that it gets support. What does a good mission statement look like? Here's how Volvo Cars introduce the style guide for one of their communications teams: “Everything we do starts with people. The guiding principles behind all our communications at Volvo Cars should be writing for people, making their lives less complicated.”
2. Get Everyone Who’s Involved Involved
Don’t just sit down, write your own rules, and ask everyone for their buy-in. Get them invested from the start. Ask for their preferences and ideas. That doesn’t mean you’ll take all their suggestions, but where there are disagreements, be diplomatic and discuss them. Make sure they feel heard and understood, discuss choices, and give reasons for decisions.
3. Keep Up with Events and Coordinate Constantly
If your company is like most companies, style decisions have to be made and remade. Branding is updated, sales campaigns come and go, leadership is passed on, and the world just keeps on changing—popular social media apps, unpopular politicians, buzzphrases of the day, and guidance from God or Chicago. Sometimes circumstances even call for one of your brilliant, sparkling bits of editorial wisdom to be reconsidered. So you need to keep your style guide updated—and keep everyone who uses it in the conversation and current with changes. Did you know that in Iceland, when they need an Icelandic word for a new thing, they have a whole national discussion and make a choice? If they can make a decision, so can your editorial team.
4. Make It Ridiculously Easy to Follow
Don’t make fussy distinctions when you don’t have to. Be as obviously consistent as you can. Some style manuals have complicated rules on things such as when to use numerals and when to spell out, but have you noticed how hard it is to get people to follow them? And don’t just make the rules straightforward; make the occasion and process of using the style guide easy. The surest road to success is to design process flows and friction points so that it’s harder to do something the wrong way than to do it the right way.
5. Make It Usable
If people can’t be bothered to use your guide, you will have to bother them a lot about it, and that will bother you a lot too. So don’t just pile on an alphabetical list of words and style rules mixed together. Sort similar rules and topics together—keep an eye on which ones are most likely to apply in the same document. Include a table of contents, clickable cross-links, and lots of examples. And make it easily searchable, since users will mostly turn to it to find one specific thing. Whether you put it on a web page (where users can use the browser’s search function) or keep it in a document, it’s important to include things in the form that users will type into search: for example, travel, travelling rather than travel, -ling.
6. Don’t Include What People Can Look Up…
You’ve specified a reference style manual and a reference dictionary, right? And they’re ones that everyone who needs them can check on a moment’s notice while working? As in you have an online subscription, or their website is available free, or at the very least you have a paper copy in arm’s reach of every editorial desk? Good. You don’t need to specify things that can just as quickly be checked in them. Keep your style guide for your in-house variations and additions.
7. …Unless It’s Something that Comes Up Often and Takes Time to Look Up
On the other hand, if the style guide is something that a colleague will have open and ready while working, and it’s quicker to check it than to check the dictionary or manual, it’s worth including questions that come up often even if they’re in the reference dictionary or manual. Especially if your reference style manual doesn’t make its call on the issue easy to find.
8. Be Witty If You Can Get Away with It…
When you’re making lists of preferred spelling, there’s not a lot of room for wit (except by including funny words that users might spot in passing). But when you’re explaining style preferences in matters of punctuation, numbers, structure, etc., you can choose to use entertaining examples. They could involve in-jokes (with names of department members, perhaps, but remember that as people come and go, this sort of thing gets dated) or cultural references (we’re not saying you should have a Rickroll in there, but we’re also not saying you shouldn’t) or even dad jokes (something something “comma heads prevail” something).
9. …But Remember: Brevity Is the Soul of Wit
When people come to a style guide, they’re in look-it-up mode. If you think people are impatient with long stories before recipes, think about how they’ll feel when they just want to know how to punctuate a word and you’re giving some cornball shaggy-dog story. Also, if you’re trying to have an “edgy” kind of wit, remember that there’s a difference between being witty and just being unpleasant. Always ask yourself if what you’re putting in there could end up in your HR file.
10. Include Slang and Naughty Words When You Can
Let’s be honest: What people love the most are the naughty bits. This is especially true for (nearly all) editors. It may very well be true that you will never have any reason to include titillating words in your style guide, but if they ever come up, enshrine them. It’s not just that it makes people smile when they see them—let alone when they actually have to use them!—it’s that a bit of naughtiness makes the style guide users feel like insiders. They have this little secret (which they will probably tell their friends and colleagues about). It enhances group cohesion and gives a sense of ownership. (Just remember the advice about your HR file.)
11. Give Checklists When You Can
Checklists are great. Astronauts use them. Pilots use them. Surgeons use them. Even some book publishers use them. When there are a number of things that need to be looked out for in a document, a checklist is a great way to make sure you get all of them: Chapter heads match table of contents? Check! Spelling is fully consistent with style? Check! Lists all have the same format? Check! Numbers all follow the same principles? Check! And so on.
12. Make It Easy to Access
We are not in the 1970s anymore. Having the style guide printed out in a binder is a guarantee it won’t get used enough. Even having it distributed in a PDF means people have to replace the PDF every time you update it. Websites, SharePoint sites, and similar are easier to use. But you can add an enforcement arm of your style guide that’s even easier to use than that. You can get automated style guide help for your entire team with PerfectIt™ for Microsoft Word. You’ll still want to have a full reference in-house guide, but PerfectIt is a splendid on-the-spot aide. It finds the mistakes that colleagues didn’t think to check the style for.
The Credit You Deserve
Sure, you could just make an alphabetical list of things that will upset you if they’re not spelled or punctuated correctly. But don’t you want to do something well? Really well? A style guide is a document, after all, and as an editor you’re supposed to be an expert in making effective, usable, enjoyable documents. Developing a great corporate house style is a lot of work—it takes time, the involvement of many people (how good are you at herding cats?), and the application of a truly thoughtful intelligence—but it’s your masterpiece. And it will make your job easier, and make you and your company look better. Using PerfectIt to help with its enforcement takes that to the next level.
PerfectIt won’t make you famous like someone who has published an international bestseller (although some of them use it too), but building your house style into PerfectIt does give the editorial team the credit that language professionals deserve. It even lets you include your company logo so your team knows that you created the style for them.
PerfectIt is easily updated, it keeps everyone in the loop, and it’s simple to use. It’s a great way to make developing a house style easier and to ensure that you spend less of your time bothering colleagues about following the guide! With PerfectIt, your team is motivated to use it because with just a few clicks, it helps them look good. And isn’t that the quiet satisfaction you were looking for? Click to get the PerfectIt free trial.