Tuesday, September 19

Writing A Style Guide

Sue Khodarahmi means well in her article ''You're stylin' now,'' published in the September-October 2006 edition of Communication World by the International Association of Business Communicators. I really believe she does.

Khodarahmi even gives credit where credit is due, offering up a little on the importance The Associated Press Style Book (AP Style) and/or The Chicago Manual of Style. But then, unfortunately, she suggests that there's really ''no right or wrong as long as you're consistent,'' suggesting companies and organizations can feel free to create their own style guides to cover a myriad of exceptions.

The trouble with this philosophy is two-fold. First and foremost, implementing deviations from AP Style (or other style guides) means your company is really implementing two style guides: one for public relations that follows AP Style and another for a few or all other audiences. In short, her explanation ''as long as you're consistent'' is already in jeopardy.

The second problem is that this negates why AP Style was adopted in the first place. Originally, AP Style was adopted by national and international publications to improve consistently on questions not covered by English grammar rules. In short, they recognized the need to standardize the written language as opposed to having each publication write its own rules. AP Style, which I require in any class I teach, is the foremost guide to newspaper style in the United States and is consistently recognized as such worldwide. It is also updated annually, allowing it to keep up with English as a living language.

Certainly there are some exceptions. The Chicago Manual of Style prescribes a writing style that is widely used in the publishing industry (as opposed to newspapers). The differences between it and AP Style are generally insignificant. However, the Chicago Manual of Style is only updated every decade or so and is considered by some much less relevant than in the past. (We use it to arbitrate any style questions not addressed by the AP.)

So, again, we run into the same problem. Endless exceptions or, worse, a company's self-imposed style guide does the exact opposite of what Khodarahmi means to say. A company-wide style guide would be nothing more than a license to be inconsistent and fall prey to 'because i said so' editors when all everyone else is trying to do is enhance communication with consistency.

Does this mean that there should never be any exceptions? No, but good writers (and hopefully good executives) will continue to minimize those exceptions for those instances when there really is a good reason to break from the AP.

Sure, we're not going to refuse to cap all titles if a company really wants to capitalize job titles that occur after the name in an employee publication. But we will remind our clients that they are showing their ignorance in doing so, and even take our name off a news release if we're instructed to do what the newspapers will promptly correct anyway. You should too, no matter what editors are running around today trying to tell people it's all just 'pot luck' because they're tired of receiving correction letters.

After all, if communication is really about effectively communicating ideas, then it seems to make little sense to make up your own language style guide (that no one else will have) in order to do so. Sorry. We're still too young to be old fashioned and we're not biting on this one.

1 comments:

Rich on 1/27/07, 3:40 PM said...

One of the reasons I love teaching is because students sometimes keep me up to date on changes in the industry that I might have missed...

The Chicago Style Manual is now available online and I hear that they are doing a better job at updating it.

Likewise, there is a AP Styleblook online as well. You can even personalize it.

I'll be taking a second look at the online versions in the weeks ahead.

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