Writing is rarely black and white. Writing rules that is, not the words on a page.
Different countries have variations on spelling, one organisation varies from another in how they interpret punctuation rules, and individuals have their own style.
In editing work for clients, we often see the confusion that is the fallout from this maelstrom. So what can we do?
It’s actually quite simple. Where anything is open to interpretation, we apply consistency.
How to write well by spelling consistently
At its most simple, this may be a matter of spelling. Take differences between American English and British English. Once you understand the distinction, it makes perfect sense to consistently choose the British English option if writing to a UK audience, and vice versa to an American.
How to write well by applying punctuation consistently
Things can get a little more complicated where there are not helpful geographical boundaries to guide us. Use of capital letters (this has got to be the most inconsistent thing we see across all writing), quotation marks and hyphens to name a few. Here we are moving into territory where there are no definitive rules.
This can cause problems: it can waste your time because you are never sure which way round you should do something, or where to draw a line in applying a rule. And for your organisation, it can be a problem if different approaches are applied by different people.
How to write well and consistently in a business
So at an individual or organisational level, without a doubt, the best thing to do is decide upon a way of doing something and stick to it. Our advice for this is to invest in a style guide. These are books, often produced by media organisations, that set down and explain their interpretation of the rules for all their staff to follow consistently.
We do this at On Point Copywriting and have chosen The Economist Style Guide. As well as being an invaluable tool, it is a surprisingly engaging read.
Third, we have occasions when not even a style guide will help. You are on your own here, but the good news is that we are probably talking about very minor points. So while it may be impossible to be “wrong”, you could still risk creating a poor impression by being inconsistent.
A classic example could be the punctuation you choose to use (if any) after bullet points. Our rule of thumb is that if the bullet points contain other punctuation, then we end with appropriate punctuation. If they do not, when, for example they are one or two word bullet points, then we use no punctuation.
Beyond these spelling and punctuation tips, you need to consider grammar. Things like ensuring your use the right tenses or person consistently. These are a different area entirely and deserve their own blog post.
One final point: always consider what you are trying to be consistent with. Yourself in a one-off document? Your business’s style? Or something else? Understanding this context will help you to be comfortable in your writing.
Image from: Pixabay.