Creating Style Guides for Professional Documents


You have a document, and it has special formatting. Perhaps it has heading styles, block quotes, references, and the like. Maybe you need to use APA style or MLA style. Perhaps your document has special chapter titles. Keeping track of these styles—and using them consistently—can be a chore. 

What Is a Style? 

As discussed here, a style is basically the format for a particular type of text. A style sheet will help you keep track of the various text formats in your document, whether it’s a business letter, a technical manual, a dissertation, or a novel. 

The style for a particular type of text can have many attributes. Common attributes include font size and face, text color, indentation, paragraph spacing (space or blank lines before and after the paragraph), line spacing, paragraph spacing, justification (right, left, center, block), capitalization style, and text styling (bold, italics, underlined, superscript, etc.). 

With so many attributes to remember, you may have difficulty applying them consistently. I see this often. A client will have a subheading in bold text, another one in italics, and even a third in bold and underlined. Some paragraphs will have a 0.5-inch first line indent with left justification, and others will have no indent with block justification. 

What Is a Style Guide? 

A style guide is, simply, a written description of the styles used in a particular type of document. A style guide helps the writer know how the document looks, makes sure the writer is consistent, and communicates the style requirements to other writers. 

Clients working on dissertations or graduate papers are generally required to follow an authorized style guide, such as APA style or MLA style. Many trade journals will also have a required style guide to follow. These style guides can be a bit tricky to follow, but they will provide the style guidance some writers need. 

What Is an “Individualized” Style Guide? 

Many of our clients are graduate students. Most use APA style, and we’re experts in APA style, so this is pretty simple. We make sure their documents meet the requirements of whatever style guide they are required to use. Now, here’s where this topic gets interesting. For clients writing on behalf of their companies or organizations, we need to create a style sheet that fits their needs. 

Let’s say you are writing some type of technical document for your organization or company. Perhaps you’re working on a business plan or grant proposal. Maybe you’re writing a policy manual. You aren’t required to follow a published style guide, such as APA or MLA. You get to make up your own. We call this an “individualized style guide.” 

What Goes in a Style Guide? 

A style guide has 3 basic types of information. 

1: The style guide describes the types of documents to which the styles will be applied. 

This answers the question, “Do I use these styles for this document?” For example, you might have a style guide for business letters. You might have one for a single grant proposal. Maybe you’re working on a blog post. The point is this: Not every style will apply to every type of document, so you need to state which documents are affected by which styles. 

2: The style guide describes a type of text within the document. Common types of text requiring a style are as follows. 

  • Block quotes
  • Bulleted and numbered lists
  • Document title on the title page
  • First and second-level headings (i.e., chapter titles and sub-headings)
  • Footnotes
  • Image captions
  • Normal paragraph text
  • Page numbers
  • References
  • Table of contents
  • Table text
  • Table titles 

The list of text types is integrated with the formatting details. In most style guides, the text type is displayed using the specific style requirements that you will apply. 

3: The style guide describes the formatting details for each type of text, including as many text characteristics needed to reproduce the style consistently. The style name should be followed by the specifics of the style, all in the relevant style to demonstrate how it looks. 

For example, if you want your bulleted list to place the bullet at 0.25 inches, follow it with a 0.25-inch tab before the words start, and use a square type bullet, then the style name “bulleted list” (the style name) should have that format. 

What Else Can Be in a Style Guide? 

Although the various formatting requirements are a predominant component of the style guide, you can also add other information that describes the writing style. In this way, you’re not only describing what the text looks like but also what it says. 

Some style guides provide instructions on word choices, key phrase, punctuation, grammar, and sentence and paragraph structure. 

For example, the APA style guide has a section on reducing perceived bias and another section on sentence structure. 

Generally, if you need an individualized style sheet for a single document you are writing, you probably don’t need this information. On the other hand, if you’re developing a style guide for an organization, and if other people will be expected to write on behalf of the organization, this might be good information to include. This will help other writers write in a professional, consistent manner that benefits the organization. 

How Can You Use a Style Guide? 

We use style guides in two ways, each appropriate for a particular part of the writing and editing process. 

First, we use style guides to communicate expectations to other editors and writers. If I have created a style guide for a client’s document and I’m going to have another editor work on the document, I give him the style guide to follow. As I said previously, one purpose of the style guide is to communicate. 

Second, we use the style guides to set up style definitions in MS Word. (I hate MS Word for many reasons, but the style function works surprisingly well.) We do it like this. 

1. Find a type of text. Format it according to the style sheet. Select it. 

If the text type is a standard type, such as Heading 1, we modify the default style to match the selected text. Many text types are standard, so this process will take care of many style needs. 

If the text type is not a standard type, or we want to differentiate it from standard types, we start the same way. We format the text based on the style sheet and then select it. Then we choose “New Style” in the style menu and give the new style a name. The newly created style will have the format details of the selected text. 

One important note: The selected text will probably not be labeled with that new text style, so, while it is still selected, we have to find the style in the style menu and apply it. 

2. Once I have the text styles set up in Word’s style list, I start applying them to all the text in the document. If some text is a first-level heading, it needs to be labeled “Heading 1.” If some text is a block quote, it needs to be labeled “block quote.” Here’s the point: Every text needs a style. 

3. In many occasions, we find that we want to make a slight change in the style for some text, such as increase the space between the text and the previous paragraph. Because all the text is set to a style, we only need to change one instance and update the style to match it. All the same-labeled text will automatically update, saving potentially hours of manual changes and ensuring that the text is consistent. 

This will allow us to make global changes to a style. If we need to modify a style, we can modify every instance at once. For example, instead of finding every place we need Heading 1 and then modifying the normal text, increasing the font size, and changing the font face from Arial (or that ugly, unprofessional Calibri font) to Times New Roman, we do it once, highlight it, and modify the Heading 1 style to match the selected text. All the text labeled Heading 1 will change. 

Are Style Sheets Really Necessary? 

Simply, yes. The longer a document is, the harder it is to remember all the styles and the harder it is to ensure that all similar text is styled the same way. The more text you have, the longer it will take to make manual changes to the styles. For example, even though we’re experts at APA style, we still refer to the APA style guide to make sure we catch everything. 

And there’s one more benefit. Style sheets serve as a memory aid. If you’re going to work on the document over time, or if you’re going to work on similar documents, the style sheet will help you remember what font characteristics you applied previously.

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