Using Style Guides Effectively
  • 8-minute read
  • 27th August 2023

Using Style Guides Effectively

A style guide allows an editor and their client to establish a set of standardized rules and guidelines that unify the voice, tone, and appearance of the client’s content. These rules can include guidelines on language usage, tone, and inclusive writing, thereby ensuring that the content is understandable and respectful and that it caters to diverse audiences.

Style guides also help in streamlining the content creation process. They establish clear rules for grammar, punctuation, capitalization, and formatting, reducing ambiguity and the need for constant decision making. This saves time and effort, especially in collaborative environments in which multiple contributors are involved.

Launch the microlearning module below to learn more about using a style guide and to test your knowledge using our interactive quiz.



Alternatively, read on for a text-only version of the microlearning.

The Importance of Using Style Guides

Style guides can be tailored to serve the needs of individual clients; they cover ambiguous or subjective issues that might have several “right” answers. Consider the following:

  • Do you want to use title case or sentence case?
  • Which grammatical voice are you using, and do you use “they” as a gender-neutral pronoun?
  • Do you use the full name or abridged name of a university or institution?
  • How many decimal points should you use?
  • What do you do if amounts are given in different currencies?
  • How do you emphasize text?

All of these can (and should) be covered by a good style guide.

Using a Style Guide

So your client has provided you with (or collaborated with you on) a style guide that answers many of the editorial conundrums listed in the previous section.

Now you’ve got it, how do you make best use of it?

Pre-checks and Familiarization

Before you start any work on the client’s document(s), look through the style guide to familiarize yourself with its content.

Ask yourself:

  • Do I understand everything the style guide is asking of me?
  • What things does the style guide ask for that I wouldn’t habitually do? (For example, if you usually prefer not to capitalize job titles but the style guide states that you should do so.) Note down anything of this nature.
  • Are there any glaring errors, inconsistencies, or omissions in the style guide?

If there is anything that you do not understand or that doesn’t quite seem right, resolve this with the client before starting work.

If it is not possible to do so, you will need to make sure that the client is aware of the approach you have chosen to take (usually by leaving a comment on the document) and that any other editors working on the same project are taking the same approach.

Keep Checking while Editing

Quite often, it won’t be possible to memorize everything contained in a style guide. Some run for hundreds of pages, while others (while shorter) are for work that needs to be returned quickly.

Your pre-checks will come in handy here; if you’ve noted down what goes against the norm, it’s very likely that you’ll remember these issues when you come across them.

Consider what the style guide’s priorities are, and keep checking for potential issues as you’re working. For example, consider the style guide’s stance on punctuation, capitalization, dialect, tone of voice, and inclusive language.

Text in tables and figures is a particular area where style guide elements will come into play, so do watch out for capitalization, abbreviation, and formatting of text in this context. Quite often, tables and figures will have different rules to the main text.

The Cascade of Authority

However detailed it is, no style guide will be able to cover every possible issue.

Style guide creators generally take one of two main approaches to this conundrum:

  1. They expect the editor to choose a logical approach and ensure consistency (between documents and among other editors with whom they’re collaborating).
  2. They name another (or a series of) alternative authorities. For example, a style guide might say “For anything not covered here, refer to the Chicago Manual of Style 17th ed.” They will then usually revert to option 1, above, for anything not covered in this additional source.

You should check to see whether the client has a preferred secondary (or tertiary) authority and use it as appropriate.

For anything not covered by any authority, follow the stylistic lead given by other elements of the style guide. For example, if a client wants you to capitalize job titles, they may well want you to capitalize department titles as well.

The Final Check Through

Once you’ve edited the document, have a final check through your notes and the style guide to see if anything crops up that you remember seeing in the document. Again, consider the main editorial elements (punctuation, capitalization, tone of voice, etc.) and pay particular attention to anything that goes against your usual habits.

Find + Replace (Ctrl+H/Cmd+H) is often quite useful in this instance, as even if you think you’ve caught everything, one or two instances will often slip through.

After that, do a final check through of the document itself, and you should be good to go.

Taking the Initiative

As noted above, sometimes style guides may contain errors or omissions. They may also contain elements that you think will be ugly and/or impractical, or things that may cause inconsistencies or issues down the line.

For example:

  • The style guide asks for any emphasized words to be put into italics, but also needs to agree with WCAG accessibility best practice.
  • The style guide asks for “firstly, secondly, thirdly” to be used, but you find lists of more than three options (“… and fifthly”).
  • The style guide doesn’t mention how people’s names should be given, and you find “Dr. J.A. Smith,” “Professor Black” and “Sarah” referred to in the same section of text about three different members of academic staff.

There is no one correct way to deal with these issues; how you approach them depends on several factors, such as how many documents you are doing for that client, how many editors are working on the same project, and how far into the project you are.

Here are some likely options.

Follow the Style Guide

If it’s impractical to question the style guide for whatever reason, you’re only working on one or two documents for the client (or have almost finished the project), and the issue is only minor, then you could just follow the instructions in the style guide (leaving a comment if appropriate).

Take a Different Approach

If it’s a minor, one-off issue, and you’re only working on one or two short documents for a client, you could choose to go against the style guide and leave a comment to the client explaining your decision.

Be very careful about doing this, and make sure that the decision is communicated to any other editors working for the same client.

Go with the/a Secondary Authority

If appropriate, you could choose to go with the approach given by a secondary authority (ideally, one listed by the client in the style guide, or if none have been listed, one that seems appropriate for the field you’re writing in).

Leave a comment explaining your decision, unless the client has requested no comments.

Consult with Other Editors

If there are other editors working on the same project, it’s crucial that you get their opinion on any such issue and their buy-in to the solution. This may be to follow the style guide implicitly, take a different approach, or contact the client for clarification.

Contact the Client

Especially if you’re at the start of working on a large project, and even more so if the issue will have an impact throughout, it is sometimes worth contacting the client for confirmation.

You may just tell them which approach you’re taking, or give a number of options and let them decide.

If you’re working with other editors or on a large project, make sure the style guide is updated with any decisions or amendments and that all the other editors are aware of this change.


Style guides allow content to be refined and standardized, but they do add extra complexity for editors. Here’s a summary of what we’ve covered here:

  • Style guides answer the ambiguities left by dictionaries and personal preference.
  • You should familiarize yourself with a style guide before starting work on a document, and keep checking it throughout the editing process.
  • Sometimes, style guides will list secondary authorities, such as dictionaries or referencing guides.
  • If something is omitted from or not quite right in a style guide, there are a number of options you might take. You should use your professional judgement and remember that communication with the client and with any other editors working on the same project is key.
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