Consistency matters in business writing: developing an Individual Style Guide

Consistency is one of the most important principles in business writing.

As I said in another blog, not Ralph Waldo Emerson’s ‘foolish consistency … the hobgoblin of little minds’, but sensible, pragmatic consistency which avoids upsetting sticklers and distracting non-sticklers among your audience.

Consistency of structure (format) is essential to the impact and effectiveness of business writing; yet is often overlooked. You need to find a way to remind you what formatting elements to use for different types of content, delivering flawless consistency along the way.

Not to mention traditional elements of style, word choices, or problems of any description where you need help remembering the solution.

One of the best ways to achieve these things – and embed a consistent approach to style and formatting in all your business writing – is to develop an Individual Style Guide.

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Individual Style Guide

An ISG is an invaluable writing tool, in two respects:

1. As an aide-memoire, to help you resolve any aspect of writing that is an ongoing problem for you; whether grammar, usage, style, word choice or anything else.

2. As a permanent reminder of your preferred approach to either structure or style elements, where you have a choice between equally valid alternatives but may reduce your impact and effectiveness if you are not consistent.

Start right away and gradually build it out, over months or even years. When you find you need to make a decision between equally valid alternatives, make a note of what you decided (and why, if you think that will help you in future).

Include whatever you want or need to. It should be personal and individual, but eventually it should be a comprehensive, live, working document. And it needn’t prevent you using different alternatives for different pieces or customers: those different approaches can all be captured in your ISG.

It will be one of the best things you ever do as a writer.


Why consistency matters

Consistency matters mainly because your main objectives as a business writer are impact and engagement. If you are inconsistent you can undermine both.

Inconsistency risks distracting your reader, by interrupting their cognitive process when they see something unexpected. If you used one punctuation approach, or formatting style, or spelling early in your piece, but subsequently use a completely different one (even if valid), the reader’s brain will pick this up, unconsciously or consciously. The brain asks: is this change deliberate? Is there some meaning behind this differential use? Or is it accidental?

It may be only a hair’s breadth interruption, but it’s an interruption nevertheless. In the wrong reader – a stickler, say – or one who simply gets impatient about inconsistency – or one who hasn’t got much time so could do without cognitive interruptions, even short ones – it could trigger a negative reaction.

In the argot of internet dating your reader could respond by ‘swiping left’ on your content: deleting it instantly from their universe and never thinking of it again. Result: failed impact and failed engagement.

It is also about courtesy: you don’t want your reader to have to work too hard. Make it easy for them, by being flawlessly consistent on anything which (i) is easy to deliver with consistency, but (ii) is not a risk to the liveliness or vitality of your piece. It looks better, it’s easier to read, and it’s considerate.

Structural (formatting) elements

Good structure is one of the essential building blocks of clear business writing; and that includes the way a piece is physically designed and appears on screen or in print as well as its cognitive structure: headings, grammar, sentence structure and logic.

Fonts, headings and white space

Among the important physical characteristics of a piece of content are its font type and size – including those used in running heads and footers, headings and subheadings. For more formal documents, make a note of what you normally include in your running heads and footers; things like page numbers and some supporting information (e.g. date, author, version, status).

Also include parameters that support the effective use of white space: margins (left, right, top, bottom); alignment (centre, left, right) and indentation; and, perhaps most important of all, line and paragraph spacing. How many times do you see content which seems to have been scrambled together from a range of sources and has inadvertently retained the line spacing set-up from the original source? Check this rigorously in any format you are using. Have a rule and stick to it. And, of course, make a note of your parameters in your ISG for reference.

Other formatting conundrums

Some people deal with this one as a ‘style’ parameter but I am going to treat it as structural: emphasis. How and when do you use bold, underlining and italics? Especially in headings and sub-headings but in main text too? In similar vein, colour. How and when do you use differential colour in fonts or background shading?

Lists are another thing prone to inconsistency, including numbering approach, and bullet styles and sizes, indentation and punctuation. In my earlier blog I covered list punctuation, where good practice allows four equally valid styles. I recommended at the very least sticking to one individual style within a single list even if you are not flawlessly consistent within a piece.

Tables are so easy to overlook, which can easily create an adverse impression that your work is messy and unprofessional. Develop and note down some parameters on how you use them, including some of the core elements mentioned earlier: especially indentation, line spacing and punctuation.

And if you use WORD styles, make a note of what you use, when and for which client.

Finally, file naming. My colleague John Espirian has written an excellent detailed blog on that topic. Follow John’s guidelines and you can’t go wrong, but whatever decision you make keep a note of your preferred parameters in your ISG.

Stylistic elements

Stylistic variables are the main meat and drink of most style guides: namely, guidance on what styles to use when faced with a choice between equally valid alternatives. For some, or most, elements of style there are just no right answers and many equally valid ways of doing things.

The extra degrees of freedom that this gives the writer, far from being welcomed as a boon to creativity and individuality, can actually be a source of great stress: which do I choose, when and why, and are they all ‘correct’?

The kind of things that commonly fall in this category are as follows:

    Capitalisation (vs lower case)
    Numbers (numerals vs written out)
    Spelling (US vs UK, -ise vs -ize)
    Referencing (quotes, italics, bibliography)
    Quote marks (double vs single, punctuation ‘in’ or ‘out’)
    Abbreviations (punctuated or not)
    Hyphens and dashes (none, dash style, hyphen)
    Bracket styles ((), {}, [])
    Character spacing (around ellipsis … or slash / vs not)
    Comma use (serial (Oxford) comma, general frequency)
    Noun styling (e.g. names of firms, job titles, departments)
    Email greetings/endings

There are many others.

Aide-memoire for problems

But a really useful ISG can go well beyond these ‘traditional’ style parameters or decisions. You can use it for almost anything you like. Here are some examples of more idiosyncratic usage questions or problems that could belong in your ISG, if they happen to be problems or issues for you.

1st vs 3rd Person: Often corporate writing prefers third person use (‘he/she/it/they’) rather than first person (‘I/we’). If this is a general preference given the kind of content you’re writing, include it in your ISG as a reminder.

Active vs passive: The passive voice is sometimes given a hard time by plain English commentators and advocates even though it often delivers more clarity than its active equivalent. Still, it can be over-used (!) and if your writing style has a tendency to do that it is worth a reminder to yourself: use your ISG to do that.

‘Best’ prepositions: Often the optimal choice of preposition in standard English usage may not be obvious, or there may be more than one equally deserving candidate (‘different to/from/than’); or you may be used to a form of English that prefers a different preposition in certain contexts. Because prepositions are often idiosyncratic – i.e. there is no alternative but to just know (learn) them – the ISG is a good place to document the ones that cause you problems. They won’t for long.

Readability: If excessive sentence or paragraph length are issues for you, you can include some SEO-type guidelines in your ISG: for example target 150 words per paragraph, 300 words per section or 20 words per sentence. You can even include Flesch readability targets in some situations: these are increasingly prominent in some official (corporate) style guides so why not in your own ISG?

Word choice

Many technical or modern words have no definitive correct styling: for example ‘e mail’, ’email’ and ‘e-mail’ are all equally correct. Make a note of which one you use and stick to it.

This also applies to hyphenation. In many cases there is really no clear-cut answer, even in the official style guides such as New Hart’s Rules. Technical and business language, even if it falls short of jargon, will always be coming up with usages that defy standardisation – for the time being. You may need to do the standardisation yourself.

I edited a piece of business content recently which had over thirty words that could legitimately have taken a hyphen or not. Without including each individual one in the Style Guide I developed for that piece, there would have been widespread inconsistencies even within the same document. Do it for yourself, in your own ISG, if you are working on content that is liable to include lots of technical language.

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Published Style Guides

I mentioned Hart’s Rules. Hart is shorthand for the Oxford Style Guide, the doyen of style guides for professional writers and editors in English. Other prominent professional style guides that are commercially available are the Chicago Manual of Style, the Guardian and Observer Style Guide and the Economist Style Guide (this is the 10th edition; currently being revised).

The reason for mentioning these is that one very important feature of your ISG is to have a default or backup, in case a style decision is needed which is not covered by your ISG and is important to determine. All good ISGs have this kind of default reference, with a preferred ordering. Mine is to first try Hart; then if not in Hart try the Economist Style Guide. Failing that, make a decision and put it in my ISG!

Excellent as all these publications are, it is no solution to simply defer to one without bothering to develop your own ISG. The point is that an ISG is individual to your personal content, problems and usage; which no commercial style guide can expect to achieve. And your ISG is dynamic, constantly evolving, a living breathing document. It grows over time. Maybe over time some things fall out of it as they become no longer problems; or the styles included become so often used that they no longer need to be referenced.

I always urge my students that if there is one thing to take out of my Writing for Business courses, it is the recommendation to develop an ISG. Invest in it, nurture it, love it, use it. Consistency is your best friend as a business writer, and your Individual Style Guide holds the key to the friendship.

Contact Prism-Clarity for further information, including where to get the best advice.