By Erica Dix
How do you know whether to write April 5, 2002, April fifth two thousand two, Apr. 5, 2002 or 4/5/02? That’s when it’s time to consult a style guide.
Style guides are created for writers in various situations to make decisions on how to express their writing in the most readable way possible for their audience. When most people hear the term style guides, they think MLA (Modern Language Association) or APA (American Psychological Association). They think about creating bibliographies in school for essays and presentation. In reality, style guides are not really about citing sources, they are templates for creating content that is professional and readable.
Many people don’t know that style guides are actually an important tool for any business or brand that wants to maintain consistent style across all of their brand materials and content. Some businesses rely on an existing style guide but some companies prefer to throw the style guide out the window. Let’s talk about style guides and how you can start to develop your very own.
Common Style Guides and Their Uses
Before you start your own style guide, it is useful to understand which style guides exist for what kinds of content. By understanding how the most widely used style guides are developed specifically for their audience, you can use them as inspiration for your own brand style guide.
MLA Handbook and APA Style: These are often the first style guides that people learn about from their high school English and Social Studies classes. MLA is made for the academic world, and takes a more formal and stylized approach compared to other guides. For example, MLA will spell out almost all numbers, only using numerals for numbers that would be more than one word, like 342 versus three forty-two. APA is also primarily used in academia, and is designed for the social sciences, with specifications for headings and footnotes. The differences in APA and MLA are centered around footnote and endnote styles. For example, MLA capitalizes every word in the paper’s title, whereas APA will only capitalize the first word of the title, and any proper nouns.
Associated Press (AP): This is the preferred style guide for magazines and news outlets. It encourages users to be quick, to the point, and media-savvy. For example, AP style does not use the oxford comma, which is the last comma in a list, since it may increase the word count, which is an important factor in journalism. AP also has different abbreviations for states and dates so be sure to check your work carefully if using the AP guide.
Chicago Manual of Style (CMA): This is a general style guide that covers a lot of the grammar details that other guides do not address. It is one of the most comprehensive and detailed guides, often used in publishing. They have less information in their citations, because the grammar and style of the body is much more important in publishing. Many corporate publications and branding guides rely on the CMA.
American Medical Association (AMA): This style guide is specific to medical writing. It focuses on accuracy and details, and is aimed specifically at people in the medical field. They include a lot of specifications regarding medical terminology that is not addressed in other guides, with updates that keep up with the ever-changing world of medicine.
If one of these style guides sounds relevant to your business, I encourage you to do more research and find out more about the recommended grammar and language rules that guide uses for its audience. In many cases, however, businesses elect to start from scratch and make their own guide, tailored especially for their needs.
- Audience Language. Does your business serve a community of professionals? You will want to adjust the style of your language depending on the type of people in your audience. If your readers are accountants or engineers, you may want to use numerals instead of spelling out numbers. Consider the level of education and background you are speaking to, and impression that you want your business to make on its audience. While jargon is usually seen as something to avoid, when you are writing specific to an audience, it may be perfectly acceptable. Consider this as you develop your style guide.
- Company Identification. Believe it or not, there are companies that refer to themselves inconsistently in their marketing communications. Are you Widget Company, Widget Co., Widget Company, LLC or WCL? While you don’t have to use your registered legal name in every mention, you should be consistent about how you casually mention the company name.
- How will you write headings or titles? Choose a format for your headings, and make sure it is consistent throughout the document. When you name the titles of books, presentations, or other works, will you underline or use italics? Both are grammatically acceptable, but adding this distinction to your style guide will make your content sharper and more easy to read. Consult the best possible guide for you.
- Oxford/Serial Comma? Grammar details are an important part of a style guide. Does the koala eat, shoots and leaves (no serial comma) or does the koala eat, shoots, and leaves? Whether you embrace that last comma or not, you should establish consistency in your content for comma usage, capitalization of proper nouns, and other common grammar considerations.
- How do you want to write dates and numbers? This is a critical style choice that is often neglected by content creators. There are several ways to write dates, with varying levels of details and readability. (Mar. 3, 2018; March 3rd, 2018, 03/03/18, etc.) Depending on your audience and industry, your audience might have an easier time reading a date one way or another.
- If you are writing for a bilingual audience, will you include any translations or footnotes? First, decide if and how you will translate. You have a variety of options for how to do this. You can put the translation in parentheses after the foreign phrase, or use a footnote with an asterisk or superscript number.
Creating a brand is more than just a set of fonts and slogans. Every detail you present to your audience contributes to a bigger picture that tells your story. If you don’t have a style guide, your content will be riddled with inconsistencies, which will weaken your impression on your audience. If you need help developing a brand style guide for your business, Big Ideas Writing can help. Contact us today!