Strunk and White and Style Guides

Maybe it’s not quite Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but it just might be the next best thing — a way to have fun with words and still follow reasonable guidelines for bringing clarity to our assorted attempts at communication. Yes, style guides can be cool. You know you want that to be true — and not just because you’re a word geek!

Everything starts with The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White. The 50th anniversary edition (2008) came out in a fancy hardcover, but it’s exactly the same as the 1999 (4th) version, and paperback copies abound. Just be sure you know what you’re getting, since S&W from your college writing course may be way out of date — content has been updated in more recent editions.

Once you’ve absorbed Strunk and White, check out the other two style workhorses.

An excellent composite source is Diana Hacker’s A Pocket Style Manual. The current fifth edition includes to-the-point sections on clarity, grammar, punctuation, mechanics, and research, as well as examples from several major guides (Chicago, MLA, APA), a list of style guides (including Microsoft’s 2004 manual and one from the American National Standards Institute), a page of proofreader/revision symbols, and access to exercises on the companion website. This handy guide is small enough to keep at your desk and contains most of the often-used information you need. It serves as an excellent reminder that many of us writer types probably use multiple style guides all the time.

Given my work in a variety of fields (higher education, avionics, engineering, health, business), I find that each usually starts with either Chicago or AP and then creates a blended guide that adds in the terminology and references specific to the particular industry. Most settle on Chicago if the output is to go into print, AP if the output is a website, or some combination of the two if the output is to be used on multiple platforms. Again, the organization often creates its own guide with these as a base. That’s why a webpage like Online Style Guides can list so many from individual educational institutions. They’re all based on CMS or AP and flavored with the unique zest that reaches their particular audience.

Since U.S. federal law now mandates plain language for government and other industries such as finance, check for style, writing, and communication resources from the Center for Plain Language. Sponsors include a range of entities from Chase, Deloitte, and Firehouse Financial Communications to Wondermark, CommunicateHealth, ClearDocs, and, among others.

Members of the Society for Technical Communication (STC) may also participate in Special Interest Groups that focus on setting up and/or adapting style guidelines for various industries that produce technically oriented information, including “help desk”-type resources, in print or online.

The takeaway? Create or designate a style guide that meets the needs of your business/industry and your client community. Apply it consistently. Good style should be a given, something that’s just “there,” invisible to your users but solidly upholding your brand, your performance, your message. Helping you communicate better.

©2011 Jill J. Jensen/Clarity from Chaos