What is a Style Guide and Why Would I Need One?

A style guide is a means of documenting your approach as a writer to certain elements of writing style that need to be consistent. Style guides are generally associated with certain types of writing like technical writing, commercial or business writing, journalism and web copywriting. In each of these cases, there is a need to ensure that the writing style is consistent and so guidelines are usually published to allow more than one author to contribute while ensuring that the finished piece does not necessarily carry the personal style of the writer but that of the publication, company or website associated with the writing. For publications or companies with a large number of contributing authors, a style guide is essential if the finished publication is to be coherent and consistent.

Many creative writers eschew the need for a style guide, believing that the ability to follow a standard English writing style should be an innate quality for any writer. While to a certain extent this could be argued to be true, a style guide provides a means of documenting basic rules or features of your writing that will allow you to ensure consistency in your written output. Technical writers, for example, will generally have a style guide for a particular customer or project to ensure that the data they deliver will be in an acceptable form and will be in keeping with previous deliveries or other publications that the customer already has.

The lack of a single authoritative source on style for written English means that there is, and will always be, a certain amount of debate on elements of style. The use of punctuation and correct grammar is well established and clear but style is much more than just the correct usage of punctuation, grammar and vocabulary. Style can encompass many different aspects like:

This list could easily be longer too, as each publication, company or writer will have a view on any number of elements of the style of their writing. You can see from the list that creative writers may not be worried about most of the items, whereas a bid proposal writer or a technical writer may need to take heed of all of the considerations in their daily work.

For any writer, but particularly for the freelance writer, a style guide should be an invaluable tool. Freelance writers should continually develop style guides for each customer or publication type that they work with. It is important that, as a freelancer, you can demonstrate an ability to follow a prescribed style, but equally that you can learn and record what your customers prefer from their comments. This will help increase your customers' satisfaction in the long term and will help place you as the supplier of choice for written material or assignments.

But what's wrong with a creative writer using their own style guide? Well, nothing. Can you imagine how much time it might save in proofreading and correction if a creative writer knows that they've followed a set style from the outset in certain areas?

Some good references for setting style and following conventions can be found in Strunk's 'The Elements of Style'. The Economist style guide is freely available on their website and provides style and submission guidelines for contributors to follow. The Chicago Manual of Style has an excellent website that you can subscribe to. They will also answer your specific style questions.

Lastly, not wishing to inundate you with links, try downloading the BBC News style guide and see how one of the world's foremost news and current affairs organisations handles its style.

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