What are Style Guides and How do They Earn Readers?

Illustration of Stylish Woman for How Style Guides Earn Readers Article
Illustration by Lynn S. Schwebach

by Lynn S. Schwebach

Given any writing project, writers want to express themselves today—not tomorrow. They want to get the words down and move on without revising for grammar and usage. Add to that impatience, bad memories from grade school make us avoid checking grammar; style might be a topic we never learned.

Yet bypassing proper grammar and style frustrates our audience. Improper grammar and sloppy writing causes readers to stumble on the message, leads to misinterpretation, or forces readers to stop reading.

For writers of all genres and domains, in all industries, a style guide is an essential tool. Thought to be only used by journalists and academics, style guides are the best-kept secret among highly successful, “winning” companies (and authors!).

Clients and customers don’t physically interact with a style guide, but in every communication that the company disperses (especially every encounter with a brand or company identity), a style guide determines impressions and perceptions — and ultimately sales.

Style Guides Provide Consistency

That’s because style guides enforce a consistent and professional branding message.

Pamela Rutledge, Ph.D., director of the Media Psychology Research Center at Fielding Graduate University, said a style guide should be an “extension of the company’s core story and brand values.”

Rutledge has written extensively on the psychological implications of media and technology, and she previously worked in communications producing a wide range of published and online communications. “Every communication becomes a brand touch point.”

A style guide establishes guidelines on a range of writing and branding specifics. Grammar, punctuation, and usage standards are often included. For example, salient style issues such as:

When to hyphenate certain words

  • When to write out numbers
  • How to capitalize headers and titles
  • How and when to use abbreviations
  • Guidelines for using graphics, fonts, and logos

In his eponymous grammar book, Gwynne’s Grammar, which spent five months on the best-seller list in Britain, N.M. Gwynne writes that style helps us present our thoughts to others “in ways that are clear, when necessary forcible, and also graceful.” He also states that style helps us communicate “in the most winning way.”

An in-house style guide also might include correct usage of words or phrases specific to an industry in addition to fundamentals on how to write pitches for different products or business aspects.

Stephanie Haynes, product manager at Vaisala, Inc., a global company headquartered in Finland, has done a lot of writing in her sales and management roles. Vaisala’s brand handbook references The Chicago Manual of Style and that the company uses American English (important for an international company).

Yet there are other more specific things that could be addressed with an in-house style guide, said Haynes, who works at Vaisala’s North American headquarters in Louisville, Colo. “It’s so difficult to maintain a brand identity in professional writing, particularly when it comes to localized documents like proposals or deliverable reports. I think a style guide that is clear and concise could actually help with this. Things that I see a lot that could be addressed are:

  • How to structure and organize a document;
  • Use of headers and sub-headers;
  • When to use shorter, more pointed sentences and paragraphs;
  • When to avoid descriptive language; and
  • The general purpose of each type of document.”

Most companies begin with a style sheet and use an established style manual as the core reference for most grammar and punctuation issues. The guide doesn’t need to be lengthy, but employees need to know where to find it.

Haynes also recommends training on using the style guide and other basic, writing issues. “Companies invest in training for technical resources, why not do the same for writing resources?”

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