Commas, colons and capitalisation: the best style guides

by | Sep 23, 2016

Consistency and clarity of language are as important in a world of 140 characters as they were in the time of Gutenberg.

For most organisations, maintaining your own editorial style guide is unnecessary when there are such good ones online that you can use. You may also find that while office pedants will doggedly disregard your professional experience and expertise for the sake of a favourite acronym, they will bow to the judgement of an outside authority.

BBC

Politically neutral, fulsome and clearly explained, the BBC’s reliable-but-slightly-dull style guide is updated often and covers a wide range of relevant language. The fully searchable guide is a Word document, strangely.

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BBC style guide

BuzzFeed

BuzzFeed have a main guide with lots of detailed advice, particularly on topics such as social media, but it is a little unwieldy to use. They have a useful UK-specific addendum.

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The Economist

The Economist style guide gets points for starting its brilliant introduction by quoting Orwell’s seminal Politics and the English Language before going on to cite Mark Twain and Fowler. The guide itself also has plenty of acerbically good advice, though it’s thinner than the Guardian’s.

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Gov.uk

With an authority that’s hard to argue with, the government’s own style guide is accessible and straightforward. It covers language that’s especially pertinent to policy teams. It’s not the most comprehensive though, and its entries are usually extremely brief. It’s a style guide to refer to in a hurry rather than browse.

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The Guardian

The Guardian’s editorial guide is wide and deep and the one that we use. It covers useful language for not-for-profit organisations and is well researched.

Its authors keep it up to date, and also answer questions promptly on social media, often with a bitingly sharp sense of humour. The style guide’s homepage has been strangely mangled since the Guardian’s website became responsive, with no semblance of alphabetisation, but otherwise this is the one to beat.

David Marsh, the guide’s editor, and hero of content specialists everywhere, retired in summer 2016. His work will live on but he’ll be sorely missed.

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If I have had any impact at all in my time at the Guardian, it’s a reduction in the incidence of capital letters. Just think of the saving in ink and trees. There are also rather fewer actresses in our pages these days. At the same time, my years at the helm have coincided with a huge increase in swearing. As legacies go, not quite “comment is free, facts are sacred”, but it’s mine and I’m proud of it.

David Marsh, The Guardian

Louder Than Ten

This one is more about how to write well than a reference guide to grammar and spelling. But it nails tone and voice so brilliantly that it deserves a place in any style guide round-up. Packed full of advice-jewels such as “Don’t waste time milling around your topic with long intros or slow anecdotes. Strike swift and to the heart. Write like you could die of tuberculosis tomorrow.”

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MailChimp

MailChimp’s style guide has a website of its own and is well designed and easy to use. There are good sections on tone and structure as well as a shorter word list. It’s excellent for editorial advice, slightly less useful for checking spelling variations or how to use a particular word or phrase. It’s published under a Creative Commons licence, so it could make a good basis for your own tailored version.

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A Progressive’s Style Guide

Language doesn’t just describe the world; it can affect it, perpetuating discriminatory beliefs and behaviour. The Progressive’s Style Guide, a 41-page PDF, bravely takes on some of the most difficult language issues around gender, ethnicity and violence. It does so in a balanced way, with informed explanations of why one form may be preferable to another and why some language may be pejorative.

The Diversity Style Guide attempts a similar task, with more than 700 terms related to ethnicity, disability, immigration, sexuality and gender identity, drugs and alcohol, and geography. Also useful is the Conscious Style Guide, which groups useful language articles and resources around areas such as disability, age and ethnicity.

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Progressives' Style Guide

The Telegraph

A little more old-fashioned than its competitors, the Telegraph takes its style seriously, but with occasional cartoons and wry touches: “Mansion: tabloid. Its use by us can only be satirical.”

It’s badly out of date, however – Hosni Mubarak is still “President of Egypt” – and it betrays a certain cultural worldview. To the rest of the world he may be a quarter of The Smiths, but to the Telegraph style guide Morrissey is “Morrissey, Neil”.

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Further reading

This Huffington Post article by Dave Standen is a good summary of why a “useful, user-friendly web content style guide” is important.

Rob McWhirter explains why even small teams need a style guide.

Brilliant Noise have created the style guide of the future, integrating theirs with a Slackbot.

Slackbot style guide

What did we miss?

Any other great sources of editorial style advice we overlooked? Let us know…

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