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Why Style Guides Matter in Business Writing

Photo of several style books and dictionaries.
Pick a style guide, any style guide.

You have a sense of style with your wardrobe. You have a sense of style with your home furnishings. You may have even created a sense of style with your car.

But what about with your writing?

Do you use the first person in some articles and third person in others? Do you spell out state names sometimes and other times abbreviate them?

To be an effective business writer, you need to have a consistent style.

The best way to achieve consistency is by following a style guide or a style manual.

Two of the best-known style guides are The Associated Press Stylebook and The Chicago Manual of Style. Many publishers use one of these books as a guide for language use, such as spelling, abbreviations, and punctuation. They’ll then add their own style preferences that are particular to their own organization.

Copy editors are tasked with reading and editing copy that is in keeping with that house style.

Style Guide Examples

Here are some examples of general usage that are covered in a style guide:

  • Use of commas before “and” or “or” in a series: I brought a pen, a pad, and my laptop vs. I brought a pen, a pad and my laptop. (Personally, I’m a big fan of the serial comma, that first example.)
  • Use of gender-neutral pronouns: he and she vs. they (The latter is becoming more and more common.)
  • Use of certain terms: e-bookeBook, or ebook (I’m partial to the last one, just as I am to email.)
  • Use of digits or words for numbers: 12 or twelve? (Twelve seems very formal; I usually suggest using figures for anything over nine.)

A style guide is like a dictionary in which a writer can look up a term and see how to use it consistently. It saves writers and editors valuable back-and-forth time and offers readers easier-to-read copy.

Terms that may be specific to your company’s publication include a consistent choice between customers and clients, or employees and team members.

If your publication is for a trade association called the National Association of Simply Amazing Marketers, your house style guide may permit the use of the acronym NASAM on first reference.

Image of a quote that says, "To be an effective business writer, you need to have a consistent style. So choose your favorite style guide and stick to it."

Where to Get a Style Guide

Most style guides are available in print and as digital subscriptions:

  • A print copy of the AP Stylebook is available for around $14 on Amazon, while a digital subscription runs $26 per year.
  • The Chicago Manual of Style 17th edition costs around $60 on Amazon and $39 for an annual digital subscription.
  • Some specialized industry style guides are also available.

I actually prefer the digital subscriptions over the print versions because they’re easily searchable—which saves me so much time.

Another way your writing could be inconsistent is in how you cite your sources. Many writers use the Modern Language Association (MLA) citation style, which uses a specific format to credit print and online sources and to allow others to access that material if they wish.

Some websites, such as EasyBib, will put your article or book source into MLA style for free, or you can buy the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers (7th edition) for about $12 on Amazon.

Perhaps the simplest and best resource for style and usage is The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. Originally published in 1918, this slim but invaluable guide has styling techniques and usage tips, as well as common misspellings and advice for good writing. It’s a must for any serious writer or editor.

The best part of the famous 4th edition of this book is a wonderful essay written in 1979 by E.B. White, author of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little. His main points? Write concisely and clearly, and say something worthwhile.

The Elements of Style (4th edition) is available for about $8 on Amazon. It’s on my bookshelf, and I couldn’t live without it.

The way your words come together and the tone that you use for all your blogs, press releases, and emails are essential to your brand. Customers associate your words with your product or service.

Your company’s style guide can be fluid as you add or change elements as your company changes and grows.

So get started on your sense of style today!

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Dave Baker

View posts by Dave Baker
Hi, I’m Dave Baker, founder and copy chief of Super Copy Editors. I have more than 25 years of professional proofreading and copy editing experience, including work for The Nation magazine, The New York Times, and The Times-Picayune of New Orleans, where I shared two staff Pulitzer Prizes. At Super Copy Editors, we’re passionate about helping agencies, marketing teams, and education companies refine and polish their text to give them confidence and ensure success. Learn more here.

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photo of a collection of style guides and books on advertising, marketing, and education