Why your business should have a house style and how to get started

Do you write 10 December or December 10th? Tee shirt, t-shirt
or T-shirt? Every business should have a consistent
way of writing words and phrases with tricky or alternative formats – here are a few to consider

photo of a row of differently painted houses to illustrate a blog post about house style

Photograph by Bernadette Gatsby

When I worked as a freelance sub-editor, pretty much the first question I would ask at a new magazine (well, maybe after “Where’s the tea station?”) was: “Please could I have a copy of your style guide?” The style guide is the sub-editor’s bible – a reference booklet that tells editorial staff how that particular publication writes times and dates, book, film and exhibition titles, weights and measures, phone numbers, photo credits, and any other words and phrases that have alternative formats or tricky spellings. All these rules together make up that publication’s “house style”, in which all copy should be formatted.

House style also extends to design – the font, size and spacing of headlines, standfirsts, body copy and captions are usually determined by a set of rules to ensure visual consistency across the whole magazine. And most publications will also adhere to a strict colour palette, often digitally mixing a selection of their own shades for designers to use.

Tone of voice is harder to pin down, but should also be considered as an intrinsic part of written style that reinforces brand personality. Warm, friendly and informal, or brisk, business-like and straight-to-the-point? Is this a no-nonsense brand that sticks to facts and no-frills advice, or does it use emotional language to empathise with its audience and gently inspire them to action?

In fact, all businesses should have an in-house style guide. Signage, catalogues, leaflets, brochures, newsletters, emails, blogs, website copy and customer letters should follow the same rules and should all sound as if they are coming from the same source, no matter who has written them.

House style is important for several reasons. The most important is consistency – ensuring that all written communication across your business uses the same formatting. It looks tidy, makes copy easier to read and promotes qualities of credibility, dependability and trustworthiness – subconsciously suggesting to the reader that your business can always be relied upon to deliver consistently great results.

The options you choose also help to reinforce your brand personality. Do you want your company to be known for speed and efficiency? Then you might want to opt for the shortest version of a phrase, using figures and symbols wherever possible (20/10/15, 45%, SW London). Is your brand more traditional, or renowned for its craftsmanship and artistry? Then 20th October 2015, 45 per cent and south-west London might help to emphasise those qualities.

So how do you go about compiling your own house style guide? You could start by looking at other people’s. Both The Guardian and The Economist have published theirs as books, and there are several more available that have been written specifically for business and online writing. However, most of these go into more detail that you probably need, at least to begin with. The alternative is to create one from scratch and add to it as you go along – if you write a lot it will build up quickly. To get you started, here are a few style questions to consider:

Will you write eg or for example, or are both allowed? Will you allow months or days of the week to be shortened or should they always be written out in full?

Upper or lower case? The usual rule of thumb is that if you can say it as a word then capitalise the initial letter only (Bafta, Nato), otherwise it’s all caps: BBC, IMF.

Brand names
For stylistic reasons, brand names are often grammatically incorrect – LinkedIn, IKEA or eBay, for example. The question is, will you follow suit when you refer to them? You can deal with them on a case-by-case basis or you can decide to always or never follow them. My preference is to never follow them because it can look as if you’re the one who’s made a mistake – although having said that, when a brand name is well known it can look weird to write it “correctly”; Linked In looks pretty odd. This is a tricky one and generally the cause of much hair-pulling in sub-editing departments!

Companies, groups and teams
Companies are usually referred to as a singular entity (“John Lewis has some lovely Christmas decorations this year”), whereas groups or teams – despite being technically singular – are usually pluralised because we can identify their individual members (“The Rolling Stones have released a new album”).

To keep spelling, capitalisation, italics and hyphenation consistent, everyone in your company should use the same type of dictionary, ie, Oxford, Collins, Chambers – or the Mac Dictionary app if you like!

The standard is to write one to ten as words and 11 or more in figures.

After the first mention, will you refer to them by Christian name or surname? Will you capitalise ranks, titles and office holders?

Places and points of the compass
West Country or west country? South-East London or south east London?

Quotation marks
Single or double? Singles inside doubles or doubles inside singles?

Telephone numbers
How will you space these out, and will you use brackets for codes?

Times and dates
10 December or December 10th? Nineteenth or 19th century? 1990s, 90s, ’90s, nineties or Nineties? What about someone who’s in their 90s – or nineties?

How will you write book or film titles? In italics? In quotation marks? With every word capped up?

Weights and measures
Will you abbreviate these and, if you do, will you use capitals and spaces? Two litres, 2L or 2l? 40 SQ FT, 40sq ft or 40 square feet? Tablespoons or tbsp?

Word list
It’s handy to keep a list of words that you use frequently and that have difficult or alternative spellings: adrenalin or adrenaline? No one or no-one? Rock n roll or rock’n’roll? T-shirt, t-shirt or tee shirt? Names such as Katharine Hepburn, Elle Macpherson and Leonardo DiCaprio are often misspelt. And don’t forget to capitalise trade names: Hoover, Polyfilla, Teflon, Valium, etc.

It might take a while to put it together, but having a house style guide that everyone in your company can refer to, or even just as a reminder for yourself, is essential to developing a consistent, reliable and dependable writing style and tone of voice – one that your readers will trust and warm to.

NB: Although house style should be used most of the time, there are moments when your communication format might require you to break your own rules. Offers, competitions or flash sales need to grab a reader’s attention in the shortest possible time, so using figures, symbols and abbreviations might be a better ploy in those scenarios.