Last week, I talked about creating a graphic design style guide. Along with that, you need an editorial style guide. These are just two of several very important tools that all nonprofit communicators should be using.

Your editorial style guide should contain a word list that shows how you will use, format, and spell certain words.

  • When do you spell out numbers? Under 10 or 100?
  • Do you hyphenate certain words or not? Is it email or e-mail? Decision-maker or decisionmaker? Fundraising or fund-raising?
  • How do staff’s proper names appear in print? Robert or Bob? Middle initial or not?

Online communications consultant Kyla Cromer recommends including preferred terminology. For example, do you ask people in email and on your website to “click” on a menu option, or “select” it, or “choose” it? When you save something does a “window” appear, or a “box” or a “pop up”?

You should also include rules about abbreviations, capitalization, acronyms, formatting, and anything else related to how words, numbers, and punctuation appear in your publications.

  • Do you use periods in acronyms or not, such as USA or U.S.A.? Washington, D.C. or Washington, DC?
  • Formatting phone numbers: use parentheses around the area code or not?
  • Formatting email addresses: all lower case or are capital letters OK?
  • Formatting website addresses: include the http:// and www. or not? What about capital letters?
  • Formatting numbered lists: 1. and 2. or 1) and 2)
  • The serial comma: dogs, cats, and birds or dogs, cats and birds
  • When should you and shouldn’t you use italics, bold, and underline for emphasis? (Hint: never use underline online unless it’s a link!)

Finally, it’s also a good idea to include the proper wording of taglines, mission statements, and program titles and descriptions. These all belong in your Marketing Bank, whether you include them in the style guide or not.

Include anything and everything that you as the communications pro end up correcting when editing someone else’s work.

But a word of caution: Don’t turn into the Style Police. It’s important to know the difference between undisputed rules of grammar and punctuation and questions of personal style. Where you do have choices, like those I’ve outlined above, decide what you like and stick to it. Consistency is your goal. Strongly encourage everyone in your organization to go along, but don’t go overboard. Pick your battles. (For example, I am totally inconsistent on the serial comma and have decided that I really don’t care. So I’ve stopped forcing myself to proofread for that.)

That’s where relying on one of the venerable style guides comes in handy. The AP Stylebook is the best bet for nonprofits. For a small fee, you can access it online. The Chicago Manual of Style is more formal in style, but also widely adopted as a style guide of choice.

In addition to your editorial style guide, you should also create a design style guide that specifies which fonts, colors and other design elements you use, and when and where you use them. Combine these into one document if that makes more sense to you.

Distribute your style guides widely and put them in places staff and volunteers can easily access, such as online versions on your intranet or printed “cheat sheets” that staff can keep printed out at their desks. Supplement the style guide with a running list of examples or answers to style questions raised by staff.

As Sarah Durham pointed out on the post about graphic design style guides, they are not only helpful in producing better communications today, but they also help you institutionalize your organization’s messaging, too.


Published On: April 19, 2011|Categories: Writing Skills and Content|