Your house style

When it comes to business writing, consistency makes what you say more easily understood, presents a professional image and helps create a clear identity. So it’s worth developing some sort of house style for your written communication and encouraging everyone to follow it, especially in your core corporate communications, like websites, online profiles, newsletters, reports and press releases.

A typical editorial style guide should include the following. Review and update yours regularly to reflect new industry terminology, for instance.

Abbreviations and acronyms
Some may be easily recognised (e.g. BBC) but most abbreviations, even if they’re commonly used in your sector or organisation, should be spelled out in full first time, with the abbreviation in brackets.

Brand names
Be aware of registered trade names and avoid using them as general terms e.g. use vacuum cleaner not Hoover, loudspeaker not Tannoy, sticky tape not Sellotape. There may be some specific ones within your industry.

Capital letters
Decide when these should be used, bearing in mind that unnecessary capitals make text harder to read. Some organisations adopt capitals for job titles and department or team names. Decide whether to use them for things like seasons (spring or Spring), compass points (north or North) and the internet (or Internet).

Collective nouns
Decide whether to use plural or singular when writing about an organisation. There are no definite rules here, it depends on whether an organisation seems to be a collective identity or a group of individuals e.g. the government are launching a policy, a team of scientists has carried out research.

Contact information
Decide on a style, including spacing, for setting out addresses, phone numbers, emails and websites. If your communication is likely to be read globally, include details like country telephone codes e.g. +44 (0)121 xxx xxxx.

Foreign words
Some foreign language words and phrases have become so commonly used they generally don’t need to be clarified or highlighted e.g. ad hoc, angst, joie de vivre. Others should be put in italics and explained e.g. ad nauseum. Or think about finding an alternative way of putting it.

Hyphens
Style guides often include commonly used compound words and phrases that can include hyphens, so that there is consistency e.g. cooperate or co-operate, frontline or front-line.

Jargon
Decide what terminology is acceptable in your written communication. There may be some terms that are commonly used within your sector, but always bear in mind who you are writing for.

Numbers
The standard style is to use words for numbers between one and nine, then figures for 10 upward. Decide how you want large numbers to appear e.g. 1,000 or 1000, 12m or 12 million.

Punctuation
Agree consistent punctuation for things like quotations and lists. For instance, which way do you set out a direct quote?

  • He said: “This looks fine.”
  • He said, ‘This looks fine’.
Decide how you want lists to begin, and when to use capital letters, semi-colons and full stops to separate each list item.

Times and dates
Decide whether you want to use the 24-hour clock and how to separate hours and minutes, with a full stop or colon e.g. 14:30 or 3.30pm.

Agree a standard layout for dates e.g. 12 December 2010 or December 12th 2010, 12/12/10 or 12-12-2010.

US spelling
Decide whether you want to adopt US or UK spelling (e.g. color or colour, minimize or minimise) and use either one or the other across all written communication.

A quick internet search will find you examples of other organisations’ guides to adopt as a starting point. Or you could invest in a professional editing handbook - New Hart's
Rules is an industry standard.