style guide

If you think Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, you’ve never been on Twitter the day the Associated Press (AP) releases its annual style updates. Each year, the news co-op adds entries for new or newly popular terms, adds context to existing entries and sometimes, to the chagrin of many copy editors the country over, reverses its stance on previous entries. 

You may recall that in 2019, AP decided to start using the percent symbol rather than the word when paired with numerals. Trust me when I say the debates over this single change were epic. And don’t even get me started on the change to make “underway” one word in all uses.

While it may seem as though the AP makes these changes willy-nilly, I know they have plenty of very good reasons. AP editors know exactly what kind of ripple effect even seemingly small changes can make. And so is the case with your house style guide, even if you’re a marketing department of one. 

Don’t have a house style guide? Start here

Let’s say an executive suddenly decides that healthcare should be one word when you’ve been writing it as two for years. Any articles, blog posts, white papers, etc., from years past are now inconsistent with your current style. And that means you’ll need to decide if it’s important enough to your brand to go back and change those. 

Rather than letting just anyone influence your organization’s style guide, implement a process for updating it. Here are some steps to consider. 

1. Have a single style chief.

Depending on the size of your organization, it might make sense to have one person serve as a copy or style chief. This person would manage the style guide and ultimately make determinations on any changes, based on input from others in the organization. Ideally, this person would be someone with a copy-editing background (and not an executive or another non-writing staff person).  

In a perfect world, this person also would have been with the organization for some time. Having historical perspective on the company’s style guide is one advantage. Plus, you want to avoid having someone come in and implement their style quirks without deep knowledge of the organization. 

2. Form a style committee.

If your organization is large enough, it would be best to create a style committee that would be responsible for making decisions on changes. Invite anywhere from three to seven people — always maintain an odd number for voting purposes — to participate. Include individuals from various areas of communications, including marketing, internal communications, creative services, public relations, human resources, etc. 

Having these various perspectives is helpful when considering how certain audiences might feel about different styles or terms. For example, let’s say you work for a telecom company, and you’re used to writing for an external customer audience entirely made up of IT directors. You’ve decided that the acronym SaaS is appropriate in all references because your audience knows what it stands for. But sales has asked creative services for some content to attract a new segment of buyers: small business owners. And they have no clue SaaS stands for software as a service (let alone what software as a service is).

3. Make sure the style guide is updated in a timely manner.

Whether your style committee has decided to implement a change or you’ve decided against adopting changes AP (or your base style guide of choice) makes, you’ll need to update your company style guide as soon as possible. Failing to spell out any exceptions to your base style guide of choice leads to confusion and an increased potential for errors. 

4. Develop and document a formal process for updating your style guide.

If you have a process in place for updating your style guide, it will make it easier to push back on individuals who attempt to use their positions of authority to change your company’s style. (Notice I didn’t say easy, just easier.)

Let’s say a new marketing director comes aboard and all of a sudden wants everyone to start using the Oxford comma. Her whim shouldn’t dictate a style change for an entire organization. If she feels strongly about it, she should go through the formal process your organization has in place, whether that includes filling out a form or presenting to the style committee. This puts the onus on the policy rather than you to say no.

5. Alert all content creators to any changes.

Once you’ve gone through all the trouble of ensuring your company style guide stays up to date, don’t negate all your hard work by failing to distribute it. Alert all staff writers, freelancers and anyone else who creates content for your organization that you’ve updated the company style guide so they can work with the most relevant information.

Of course, having an ironclad style guide also makes it easier to tell content sources, No, I Will Not Capitalize Your Job Title.