Thursday, March 02, 2006

What's in style?

When discussing a project with a new client, I always ask whether they have a style sheet. A style sheet can take many forms, but it basically refers to any formal standards the business has regarding written communications.

Companies with marketing/communications staff often have some rules regarding style, but style sheets are useful for all businesses, not just the very large.

Why bother having a style sheet?
Having a style sheet requires a bit of thought and consideration. But, assuming that the way you present your business is of interest to you, time put into deciding on standards related to your written communications is well spent.

A style sheet is especially important if more than one person in your organization does any of the writing. Having style guidelines that everyone is expected to follow increases the likelihood that communications rise to at least a minimum level. Think of the style guidelines as a kind of quality control for your firm's communications.

What should be covered in the style sheet?
There are no hard-and-fast rules about what guidelines the style sheet might cover, but the organization's particular communication needs provide clues as to what common concerns should be addressed.

Here are some common style and format issues you might address on your style sheet:
  • permissible (or preferred) fonts -- also consider whether you use the same font in headings and text
  • permissible (or preferred) font sizes
  • numbers of heading and sub-headings used in documents -- this should definitely be addressed if you use templates for things like newsletters or reports
  • spelling conventions -- this may sound odd, but certain words can be spelled (or represented) in a few ways. (If you can't imagine what I'm talking about, consider: percent, per cent, and %.)
  • formal/informal tone -- the trend is toward a less formal tone in business writing, for example, using first person (I, we)
  • use of gender-neutral language
  • formatting rules (or preferences) -- for example, whether to indent at the start of a paragraph, whether to right justify text, etc.
  • rules (or suggestions) regarding punctuation of vertical (bullet) lists -- this is a very sticky subject -- all I'll say about it here is that everyone seems to have their own rules. The best you can do is develop guidelines and require people to apply them as consistently as possible, knowing that there will be plenty of people that question the guidelines.

Lots of other things can be addressed in your style sheet, but this gives you some ideas to start with. Of course, once you've developed your style sheet, you'll probably find there are lots of things you could add to it. By all means, do!


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