Stop the Bickering: Create a Style Sheet


You have been in this meeting before. You know the one, the meeting where the conversation devolves from a substantive discussion of content to petty bickering over the use of a word, or worse, the placement of a comma. Someone might have a question about semicolons. God forbid, someone asks whether we’re supposed to use one space between sentences or two.

In fact, you have been here so often, you know the parts everyone will play. Your leader Joe will rest his head on his chest while the troops rally. Bill will pull out his iPhone to summon examples from The Guardian, The Times, and Oxford’s Guide to Style. Karen will refer to correspondence from the gurus at the Federal Register. Someone will mention Strunk & White. And Tom will reminisce about what he was taught in grad school, 40 years ago.

Everyone has an answer. No one’s answer is consistent. The conversation stalls until someone stumbles across a podcast by the Grammar Girl. Suddenly everyone has a YouTube video by Weird Al or David Mitchell that the office just has to see. Finally Joe raises his head and  proclaims an arbitrary resolution that satisfies no one. The meeting is over. And you kiss good-bye to 30 minutes of your life.

As a writing trainer, I understand that language is not always black and white. In fact, 50 shades is probably an underestimate of all the grey! Still, the situation is not hopeless. We can communicate clearly and consistently without all the bickering. Here’s how:

Know your style guide. Most government writers are guided by the Government Printing Office Style Guide. The GPO is available online, through free download, or in print for purchase. It contains detailed guidance for many contentious areas of language, such as capitalization, presentation of numbers, and all forms of punctuation.

Identify the exceptions. External affairs offices are guided by the Associated Press Stylebook. All government writers are also subject to Plain Language guidance.

The GPO does not provide guidance regarding citation styles, so writers within each agency should defer to the style guide for their own discipline. Writers in science fields should use the Council of Science Editors’ Scientific Style and Format, writers in the social sciences should use the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, etc.

Some government agencies produce handbooks or guidance for certain documents that may include style suggestions. Writers should defer to those before referring to the GPO. For example, I compiled a style guide checklist for writers in the Department of the Interior. You may wish to compile something similar for your department or agency so writers know which style guide to consult, and in which order.

Fill in the gaps with a style sheet. No matter which style guide you use, questions will remain. No style guide can cover all the grey areas of language. If your office wants greater consistency among documents, you always have the option to create a style sheet. A style sheet is an informal document that you can use office-wide or for a specific writing project. Creating one is fairly simple.

  1. Identify a person or team to gather information. It can be tempting to identify an office guru to compile the style sheet. Resist the temptation. You will get more buy-in if the sheet is compiled by even a small team.
  2. Ask writers about the most problematic or contentious areas of language. The interviews create buy-in, uncover sensitive areas, and may help you discover previously unconsidered solutions.
  3. Sort solutions alphabetically into a spreadsheet. Alphabetical order is the most common method of organizing a style sheet, and a sample is available for download. You can also choose to organize by topics, such as gathering information, writing, and proofreading. Just make sure it is easy to skim and find answers. People will not read the style sheet; they will use it for reference. This is not the opportunity to air grievances or provide lengthy historical treatises.
  4. Distribute a draft and solicit feedback. Have I emphasized the need for buy-in? A style sheet does you no good if no one uses it. Give your team the opportunity to review the draft, make corrections, identify gaps, or simply approve the document.
  5. Incorporate the feedback and distribute the final copy. Complete the loop by not only incorporating the feedback but also by writing an introductory email explaining how the feedback was incorporated and thanking those who participated in the process (i.e., everyone).
  6. Use it! As writers start projects, remind them of the style sheet. Refer to it when you write. And when you edit, resist the urge to make corrections on the document; instead, refer writers to the style sheet. Where you find the sheet inadequate, make notes for a scheduled, upcoming revision. Make the document a living tool that interacts with your writing process.

I hope you found these suggestions helpful to stop the bickering and create consistency among your office’s documents. I would love to hear what your best practices have been to date so that we can learn from each other.

Michelle Baker is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Kevin Lanahan

We did this several years ago. While our communications staff uses it, it is slow to catch on with the rank-and-file. A good stylebook, though, gives us a solid basis for editorial decisions, even when author doesn’t agree.