Don’t have a style guide? Here’s why you need one

Post by Janette Wolf, writer at the Department for Education

Thursday 13 December 2018

Graphic with text that reads

It always surprises me how often style is relegated to a footnote instead of being the sine qua non of communications. Right, let’s stop there, shall we? A good style guide would have sent that sentence packing pretty smartly. Latin phrases, for all their period charm, are open to misunderstanding. And if there is one overriding goal for comms, it is that your reader should never be in any doubt what you’re talking about.

But what do I mean by style?

It sounds a bit of a flouncy kind of thing, a nice to have. In fact, it should be the backbone of all writing. Without it, your writing may be good but unless you have forensic self-control or a stint as a sub-editor behind you, it will almost certainly be inconsistent. And inconsistency is the mother of confusion.

Every department needs a style guide. This is a set of guidelines about how to couch all your drafting, from speeches and opeds, to internal news stories for the intranet, to press releases and FOI requests. It covers the words you should use in certain circumstances but just as important the ones you shouldn’t. It should enable you to write with consistency and clarity, and deliver your comms objectives far more effectively as a result.

Just because we work in internal comms, and are not external facing, does not mean we can turn a blind eye to style.

In fact, you could argue that a department’s tone is forged in internal comms. There is likely to be a ripple effect from the centre outwards.

Here at the Department for Education (DfE) we have recently updated our style guide for the first time in a while and my colleague Owen Roffe held the pen. He has this advice: “Think about your audience and the reason you’re writing, and the rest follows. In terms of internal communications, good writing starts at home. As professional communicators we should lead by example here.”

Owen wanted to anchor our new style guide to the vision and values of our department. “This isn’t an ‘add on’ to our activity,” he says. “Good writing is an essential skill for us to deliver our business.” Put like that, style most definitely equals substance.

The three Cs

Every word we write, every product we craft, should adhere to the three Cs and should be clear, consistent and – given government aversion to risk – careful. But the letter C is the gift that keeps on giving, so we could just as easily aim for confident, competent and concise.

Idiom and jargon, however, have no place in good writing; hyperbole, tautology and repetition will also turn your Chelsea show garden into a swamp. I’d go easy on the metaphor too.

Most organisations have a list of banned words

This serves the useful purpose of forcing you to abandon the cliché you were reaching rather lazily for, to find a tighter, more precise way of saying something. Media companies, who all have lengthy and well-honed style guides, will also have a long list of banned words. The Telegraph’s, for example, includes ‘perfect storm’; ‘crackdown’; ‘hike’ (when not involving Yorkshire moors); ‘iconic’; and – perhaps not surprisingly considering the Lady Who Was Not For Them – ‘U-turns’.

Gov.uk’s banned words include ‘empower’, ‘collaborate’, ‘promote’ and ‘transform’. This, if followed, is likely to challenge many government departments, who might be happily tempted to fit them all into one sentence.

Resources

There are innumerable style guides to use as a template if you do not have your own and I suggest a few below. The GCS guide (available here) makes an important point that: “It is designed to set a framework within which you can feel confident to write in your own style.” They’re not suggesting everyone should sound the same. Good writing always requires judgement, so the best style guides allow some flexibility. A rule of thumb would be to find a style that works for you, then stick to it.

https://gcs.civilservice.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/6.2169_CO_CP_Style-Guide_v9web.pdf

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/style-book/

The Economist Style Guide is available as a PDF by clicking here (search term: economist style guide)

Fowler’s Modern English Usage by R W Burchfield available in all formats

 

Three shortcuts to consistency

Capitalisation: this is an area that causes more inconsistency than any other and differs from department to department, from organisation to organisation. But the gov.uk style guide is quite clear: capitals are for proper nouns only, actual departments, titles, names and commercial brands. Any generic description (minister, committee, department and so on) is lower case.

Spelling: it is a great truism that the US and UK are two countries separated forever by a common language. And so we have English and then there’s transatlantic English, which is an entirely different ballgame. Make sure your spelling hails from the right side of the pond, which means Zs generally go at the front of words and never in organising, eulogising or demonising, although there is an exception to be made should you be in danger of capsizing. Focus and target, both induce a total transatlantic mindwipe with double ‘s’ and ‘t’ appearing when there should be only one of each. Another brace of banana skins are practice and licence. In the UK you spell the nouns of each with a ‘c’ and the verb with an ‘s’. You do the opposite in the US. Go figure, as our cousins would say.

Punctuation: Plenty to trap the unwary here from the grocer’s apostrophe (pineapple’s on offer!) to the Oxford comma. Social media has made exclamation mark junkies of all of us, so try and wean yourself off them. Hyphens are a minefield – there are generally far too many and usually in places where they shouldn’t be. However, you should hyphenate compound adjectives for clarity: ‘a third-rate team’ means something completely different to ‘a third rate team’. Even though context and common sense would probably tell a reader what was intended, your job is not to give them the bother.

Janette Wolf is a writer at the Department for Education

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