Updated: Mar 13, 2019
By Claire Wilkshire, Claire Wilkshire Language Services
Maybe your only foray into business communications involves posting on facebook once a month. Maybe you have staff who produce annual reports, a newsletter, a blog, and a series of documents destined for your clients. Either way, making some decisions about how you want that writing to look will help your communications stay professional.
Copyeditors are trained to respect the three Cs— consistency, correctness, and clarity. Consistency is gold: your clients want to be reassured by reliable quality. Correctness—well, obviously you need that. And clarity means making sure the writing is concise and avoids confusing the reader. You don’t need to be Shakespeare or Stephen King to write well for your business, but it’s good to understand what resources can help you proceed.
Style guide and dictionary Looking words up in the dictionary doesn’t necessarily mean you’re spelling them consistently. If you use more than one dictionary, you can end up with more than one spelling of a common word. The Canadian Oxford Dictionary is 15 years out of date, but many editors still use it for writing in this country. (And if you don’t think spelling’s important, consider how much of the world’s attention was derailed by covfefe.) Merriam Webster online is a free and comprehensive resource for US spelling. And the online Cambridge Dictionary and Oxford Dictionaries cover British spelling. Choose one dictionary and stick with it. A style guide is like a manual for what to do with sentences. If you can’t figure out how to make the high beams come on in a new car, you consult the manual. If you aren’t sure how to use dashes in a sentence, you can look them up in the Chicago Manual of Style. Chicago is the Bible of North American publishing: it’s big and it covers more than you will ever need to know. It’s also fairly traditional and a bit pricey, so if you want a lighter, more easygoing vibe, try something like the BuzzFeed Style Guide. And if you’re looking for Canadian, there’s Editing Canadian English. Any of these will tell you how to use appropriate terms to refer to illness and disability, whether to write PhD or Ph.D., and whether it’s 2 June 2019 or June 2, 2019, or June 2nd, 2019. What’s useful about a style guide is that you don’t have to know everything or even to make a decision every time, which is distracting and tiresome. You choose the guide (only a few are mentioned above: look around), and any time you’re unsure about something, you check. Done!
Style sheet What happens if something isn’t in the dictionary or style guide, or if you like the resource overall but disagree about particular points? That’s why you create a style sheet. This is a document specific to your organization. Try to use a Google doc or something you can share internally so everyone can refer to it. It’s basically a record of the choices you’ve made. If you look up okay in the dictionary and it gives you a choice of OK or okay, pick one and enter it in an alphabetized word list on the style sheet. If your style guide says contractions (such as can’t or won’t, as opposed to cannot or will not) are fine in informal situations, define what those situations are. Maybe they’re fine in emails, blogs, and social media posts, but not in reports. Categorize your style sheet so it has a section for numbers and dates, one for punctuation, one for words (including people’s names), etc. And if that sounds overwhelming, remember that it can be just what it says: one sheet. Create the file, put a couple of things on it and add to it as you go. (For more on style sheets, see Grammar Girl.)
Tools Most people use MS Word for writing, so Rule #1 is to use the spellchecker. (It’s amazing how many people don’t know that their Word is set by default to US spelling and that it makes a difference. If you’re writing in Canada for a Canadian audience, set the spellchecker to detect errors automatically and choose Canadian spelling.) There’s no excuse for not using a built-in tool to tell you you’ve written committemnt. Don’t use MS Word’s grammar checker; it’s unreliable. Grammarly also offers bad advice. If you’re not sure about the grammar, ask someone who is or check out Grammar Girl, the Purdue OWL, or some other reputable site. If your business produces any significant amount of writing, consider investing in PerfectIt or Antidote. PerfectIt is a powerful consistency checker; editors rave about it. It will tell you that on page 207 you hyphenated load-bearing and on page 6 you didn’t. It’s customizable, but the basic version is really easy to use—basically, it adds a tab to Word and you click Start. So much more reliable than the human brain! Antidote has been widely used by French editors and translators for years, and it recently issued an English version; it deals with word choice, style, spelling, and grammar. It’s sophisticated and face-saving. Even Rome wasn’t built in a day, and the first Romans didn’t have computers to contend with. There’s no need to revolutionize your writing processes overnight: you can begin by noticing what the spelling is set to the next time you’re in a document, or creating a shared file and noting on it whether your house style uses percent or per cent or %. Paying attention and knowing where to look are great places to start.
Afraid to ask an embarrassing grammar question? Seeking free, confidential advice about the apostrophe? Don’t be shy: Dr. Claire has seen it all before. Email her at email@example.com or shoot her a note on www.clairewilkshire.com and she’ll respond to your tangly sentence crisis.
Claire Wilkshire is an editor and translator in St. John’s with a dozen years of experience in university teaching and another ten as an independent language professional. Claire has a PhD in English and is completing a copyediting certificate from the University of California San Diego; she’s a member of Editors Canada (and co-coordinator of its local section), the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (UK), and NLOWE.