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
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
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
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