“What Is a Style Guide” defined style guides and explained their purpose. Today’s post offers suggestions to help you decide when you should—and shouldn’t—create a custom style instead of following your primary style guide when dealing with an atypical writing issue. In this case, an atypical issue can be anything from the capitalization of product descriptions to the presentation of foreign phrases—and every conceivable issue in between.
Every writer and organization has unique communication goals, so there is no one-size-fits-all approach to forgoing an established writing style in favor of a custom style. Consequently, these suggestions don’t tell you when to ignore your style guide but are instead meant to help you gauge your writing needs.
1. Will the style issue appear in technical, legal, scientific, or medical content?
If you’re producing technical, legal, scientific, or medical content, always try to use the established writing styles for that industry. Incorrect style choices, such as unnecessary italics in mathematical equations, can alter the meaning of the text and lead to unexpected, even hazardous, consequences. Be safe, not sorry!
The remaining suggestions are based on the assumption that you’re producing general business writing, marketing material, or nontechnical nonfiction rather than technical, legal, scientific, and medical content.
2. Is the style issue isolated?
If you’re dealing with an issue that is unlikely to reappear in future documents, consider following your primary style guide. If that guide doesn’t address the issue, review another style guide or other reference material before developing your own style. The trouble with creating your own style for a one-time issue is that, without repeated exposure throughout your content, readers may think your newly minted style is an error.
3. Is the style issue unique and recurring?
If you’re dealing with an issue that is unique to your business and will reappear in future content, consider establishing your own style—but only if you have a valid reason to go your own way. Valid reasons include (1) a creative vision that clashes with established recommendations, (2) the desire for consistency with related in-house styles, or (3) a lack of guidance from your traditional style guide.
4. Is the style issue common in your industry?
If you’re dealing with an issue that frequently appears in your competitors’ content, you can choose to follow the style that is most prevalent in your industry or choose to differentiate yourself by adopting a custom style. As mentioned above, all content is unique, so there is no universal method for choosing a custom style over an established style; however, a new or unexpected style is generally better received in creative-leaning content (e.g., a witty marketing brochure) than in traditional content (e.g., a stodgy blog post about style guides.)
Whether you create a custom style or follow your primary style guide, always record your decision (preferably in your in-house style guide) so that you can maintain consistency in future documents.
Stay stylish, my friends!