How & Why to Create a House Style

How & Why to Create a House Style

There are over 1570 pages of style points combined between CMOS, AP, and APA.1* And there are at least a half-dozen other well-respected and much used style guides. So why does your company need a style guide of its own: in-house style? Back in 2018, I talked to editor Carol Harrison about the intricacies of the house style sheet2 she had recently created for Financial Reporting & Assurance Standards (FRAS) Canada—the umbrella body representing Canada’s accounting and auditing standard-setting family of three boards and two oversight councils. Get her insights below!

Why You Need a House Style

Often called a style sheet, and sometimes called a brand guide, the in-house style is meant to be a quick reference to the few rules the company/organization/publisher applies on a regular basis, and a record of where that style deviates from a norm or even creates a new style.

So, for example, the house style guide will specify how to set the company name and which of the accepted CMOS citation models is being used (if any) as well as a simplified (or even more nuanced!) punctuation scheme for vertical lists.

This saves team members from having to memorize even a 200 page industry-standard guide.

Getting Buy-in & Making it Work

“For our group to produce documents that are readable, understandable, and respect readers’ time, they must be consistent and plain. The standard-setting technical staff (chartered professional accounts who are the writers and subject-matter experts) wanted a guide that made their jobs easier so they could focus on the content.”

“We began by casually talking it up among principals.” Harrison said. “I got positive responses across the board. In fact, people started asking when it would be ready! Once it was done, we uploaded a PDF to our internal SharePoint site and did a soft launch via email.”

Our users like having digital and paper options, so we printed the guide in house. Then we did an official launch. We went door to door with cupcakes and Cerlox-bound print copies, inviting our technical staff to complete a quiz for prizes. (They’re a competitive lot–no matter what the prize!)”

See the next post, with seven tips for getting buy-in.

Foundations of House Style

With thousands of pages in style guides already, it’s not necessary to reinvent the wheel to create a house style specific to one company. Ideally, a house style builds on an existing style guide, adding to or adapting it as required. That’s what editor Carol Harrison did when she created the FRAS house style.

“We took the existing house style, added a dash of CP Style (CP) and a dollop of the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS), which works well for the longer technical documents with footnotes,” Harrison notes. “We also listed our resources, such as the Canadian Oxford Dictionary (second edition), Garner’s Modern English Usage (fourth edition), and the Oxford Guide to Plain English.”

“In fact, for technical documents,” Harrison says, “the CPA Canada Handbook often trumps the style guides to keep material destined for the Handbook consistent. There are a couple of places, such as number style, where we say, ‘For more information, see The Canadian Press Style Guide,’ but we don’t reference CMOS or CP. That said, I use CMOS a lot to iron out individual style questions that crop up.”

Style for Various Media

A house style has to address all the various media and audiences the company publishes for. Says Harrison: “I combined the previous guide (which focused on web) with what I found in the Handbook (technical content). Most things we publish are for public consumption: from decision summaries, to web blurbs, to annual reports, to exposure drafts, to the Handbook.”

Putting Style to the Test

In order to get a house style that serves everyone’s needs, it’s important to test it for completeness. To get buy-in from employees, so the actually use the house style, , it’s important to test it for usability. Here’s how Harrison tested the FRAS guide:

“About nine months in, we assembled a group of principals from all three departments to ‘break it’: What worked? What didn’t? What was missing? How did they use it? We took that feedback and incorporated into the style guide. The exercise not only showed gaping holes but also revealed assumptions I’d made about the users’ knowledge of grammar and suchlike. I kept that in mind when I revised.”

Tricks to Get Your House Style Used

Once you’ve got a house style, the challenges are keeping it relevant and getting it used. This week we conclude our discussion with editor Carol Harrison about her experience creating a house style sheet for Financial Reporting & Assurance Standards (FRAS) Canada—the umbrella body representing Canada’s accounting and auditing standard-setting family of three boards and two oversight councils.

Keeping House Style Up to Date

“I have a dedicated section in my personal, hand-written editing log for things I want to add to the next edition style guide,” Harrison says. “Also, I fully expect users to find things that can be improved. To that end, we are thinking of ways to engage staff in helping us [with revisions]. That might happen in about six months, with a second edition [being released] about six months later. So a year after the first edition. I think that is reasonable, given our workloads.”

Getting Buy-in

User testing and involving higher-ups from the outset were integral to Harrison getting buy-in so that people use the house style. Their light-hearted contest helped get users to look at it, too. Making it accessible, however, was key: “It’s available in-house as a PDF with basic navigation and as a Cerlox-bound, four-color print edition.”

Harrison did have a bit of an advantage getting buy-in from colleagues: since the company is mainly concerned with setting and maintaining standards, they wasn’t overly hard to convince them to use a standards guide.

“What’s interesting with working with standard setters,” she says, “is that they understand what setting a standard means; that I’m not just coming up with things out of the blue. If they have a question about, say block quotes, I can cite chapter and verse, so to speak, from Chicago, just as they can quote from the standards [FRAS] produce. Also, as a result of this, people come to me with all sorts of grammar and usage questions. I think that shows a level of trust, which is hugely important when editing someone else’s words.”

  1. The Chicago Manual of Style, the Associated Press Style Book and Briefing on Media Law, and the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. ↩︎
  2. The official title of the FRAS house style is Standards Group Style Guide: Web and Technical Documents. ↩︎

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