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Your Guides to Excellent Writing

Company style sheet can stop comma wars

by Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere

Also see CRI’s no-excuse 10 and collaborative writing.
 

 

You can spend a lot of time on the little things in life: deciding whether to use a comma before the conjunction in a series, whether to place the comma and the period before or after closing quotation marks, or whether to spell numbers as words or write them as figures.

 

Debates over these and other minutiae risk not only wasting precious time but also creating tension among your employees.

 

Why not settle these issues once and for all? Why allow people to stake out their positions, swear their allegiance to purported allies and their opposition to perceived enemies, and divide themselves into warring factions?

 

Why not develop a company style sheet, with input from staff members, and then ask everyone to abide by it, thereby laying to rest certain nettlesome, distracting issues?

 

Here are some common points of contention you might want to address:

 

Commas before the last item in a series. Decide whether you want your writers to use a comma before the conjunction in a series (as in stocks, shares, and dividends) or to omit it (as in stocks, shares and dividends). Both practices are correct; inconsistency is the problem.

 

One space or two spaces after periods and colons. The trend is to use only one space after these marks.

 

Spaces before and after dashes. The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual calls for spaces; The Chicago Manual of Style calls for no spaces. Most on-the-job writers use spaces.

 

Spaces between the dots of an ellipsis. On this point these two major style manuals take the opposite positions: AP calls for no spaces between the dots (but spaces on both sides); Chicago calls for spaces between the dots.

 

Numbers as words or figures. It is common practice to spell numbers of nine or less and to use figures for numbers of 10 or more, but some technical and scientific writers use figures for all numbers.

 

Left or full justification. The trend is to leave the right margin unjustified – ragged, as opposed to squared-off – especially in correspondence.

 

Other topics that you might want to address are the spelling of commonly used words with or without hyphens, punctuation of items in a vertical list, the use of headers or footers to identify documents, and standard formats for memos, letters, proposals, and reports, as well as common errors to avoid (such as confusion between the contraction it’s and the possessive pronoun its).

 

As you compile your style sheet, remember that the longer, more detailed the document, the less frequently people will consult it. Limit yourself to one page. If you think a more extensive reference manual is needed, consider making it available online for easy reference. Even the most meticulously prepared style guide is worthless if six months after its distribution no one knows it exists.

 

Also, be sure to solicit suggestions and opinions from your staff members. A consultative, inclusive approach will create an opportunity for you to reinforce the importance of effective writing and will encourage buy-in on the part of your employees. A non-consultative, exclusive approach might produce resentment and noncompliance.

 

Before retiring as a partner at Custom Research Incorporated, Jeff Pope compiled a list of 10 common errors he wanted his report writers to avoid. For emphasis, he called his list “The No Excuse 10.” When new staff members were hired, they were given a copy. You can imagine how such a sharply focused list got their attention.

 

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