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There’s only one correct way to lay out and format the contents of a piece you’re hired to write, and I’m going to tell you what it is. It’s the way the client wants it done. And you’ll know exactly how it’s supposed to be done because you’ll very likely be given a style guide. Style guides are also known as style sheets and style manuals, but among writers, its most often called a style guide.
The style guide sets the standards for page layout and language use in a document. That includes everything in the document: prose style, sentence style, typeface, font, captions, headers, grammar, punctuation, spelling, margins, vocabulary, and editorial policy. Nothing is left to chance. That means that every time you accept a writing assignment, regardless of how well versed you are in the use of the language, you still need to find out what the client’s style specifications are for what you’re writing.
Even if there is no in-house guide, as the writer, it’s still you’re responsibility to follow the client’s standards – even when the client doesn’t know what they are. What do you do if you’re told there’s no formal style sheet? You do some research. Ask for examples of similar documents the organization has produced. Find out what conventions have been used and write them down. Write your own guide.
You could do what I did for a recent brief. I was hired to edit a series of technical reports and discovered the organization didn’t have a style guide. I did two things. I looked at documents they’d already produced and noted the style conventions to use as I worked on the reports. And, I turned the notes into a neat four-page document. It included the consistent conventions I’d found, some recommendations of my own, and some of the client’s preferences. What I ended up with was a neat little in-house style guide. It made my work easier, and the client was thrilled by the ‘value added’ I brought to the job.
So, which guide is the right one? The world is full of them. Every industry and profession has one. There are academic guides, government guides, and guides for medicine, journalism, and law. In addition, many organizations either require the use of their own in-house style guides, or they specify which guide to use.
All guides agree on some basic rules. You begin a sentence with an upper case letter. You end a sentence with a period, question mark, or exclamation point. They also disagree just as often. For example, most guides will tell you that you never begin a sentence with a number or end it with an exclamation point (86 people were lost at sea!), but newspapers do it all the time. Another example is a disagreement on how to make the plural – not the possessive – of SME. Some say its SMEs, other say SME’s. The correct way always depends on who you’re working for.
In industry, style guides are often called standards manuals and exist for every operation a company does from writing documents to designing and manufacturing. Ford Motor Company and Chrysler Corporation both build cars, but each has its own standards manual – and they don’t always agree. Ford says that there is always a comma before the and in a series. Chrysler says there isn’t. So, while apples, oranges, and figs is correct style for Ford, it’s apples, oranges and figs in Chrysler’s style.
The Harvard Law School publishes a Standard System of Citation that the law courts in most states follow. In Michigan, though, the courts follow that state’s Uniform System of Citations. It’s like Harvard’s, but it’s different in a lot of ways. For example, in Michigan legal documents, there are no periods. Not even in Mr or Inc. None. Interestingly, about the only profession that doesn’t have its own style guide is technical writing, because we use the client’s guide or a guide specified by the client.
Organizations that don’t have their own style guides still insist that all documents follow the guide of their choice. Some standard guides used in the U.S. are:
• ACS Style Guide (American Chemical Society)
• APA Formatting and Style Guide (American Psychological Association)
• AP Stylebook (Associated Press)
• Chicago Manual of Style (University of Chicago)
• ISO 690 (the standard for bibliographic referencing)
• MHRA Style Guide (Modern Humanities Research Association)
• MLA Style Manual (Modern Language Association)
• New York Times Manual
• Oxford Guide to Style
As a writer, you should be familiar with at least a couple of these in case you’re asked which one you normally follow. A very handy general guide is A Writer’s Reference by Diana Hacker. Another is The Practical Stylist by Sheridan Baker. Both are easy to use and will give you a solid grounding in the general rules of style. After that, it’s whatever the client wants.
If you can write a simple sentence and organize your thoughts then technical writing may be a rewarding field. Become a tech writer and quickly start an extra income stream. To learn more go to http://www.techwritingcourse.com/bright_future