Not every business text needs to read like the Wall Street Journal, and the choice of style guide will reflect this. For the book-editing projects from publishers, the job specifications often indicate which style manual to use. If you work with self-publishing authors who may not consult a standard reference (or even know they have several to choose from), you may have to select the style guidelines to use. Here’s what I do when selecting a suitable guide for business copy is up to me.
First, I ask the client if their field uses a particular style, if they haven’t applied one while writing. I make this one of my earliest questions so I know if I’ll be verifying use of a style or imposing one fresh. If they don’t have a preference, I ask to skim a representative chunk of the project, then suggest a guide to them.
The Chicago Manual of Style is a great choice for biographies, industry histories, academic texts, and anything with extensive source notes. Consider Chicago for essay-like text in annual reports, white papers, collections of anecdotes, and other narratives.
The AP Stylebook is suitable for business newsletters and other periodicals, company blogs, and internal materials like handbooks and procedures. It lists and defines business terms, so applying AP style to copy will make it consistent with many other business publications.
Other guides to usage and clear, authoritative business writing include:
- HBR Guide to Better Business Writing (by Bryan A. Garner)
- The Bloomberg Way, 14th edition
- The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, 5th edition
- The Economist Style Guide, 11th edition
Skimming the project can alert the editor to specific jargon used in that client’s world. No published guide can keep up with every new business term, so keep track of jargon in the project style sheet and request explanations if needed (sometimes they aren’t needed). For one client, I worked on two books about a certain type of stock trading, one for beginners and the other for experienced operators. They shared a common lingo, but the pro guide rarely bothered to explain it, whereas the newbie book included a glossary. The levels of explanation were appropriate for the intended audiences.
Finally, if a new client or company doesn’t have an in-house style guide, you can suggest one of the standard texts listed here, or—for longer engagements—offer to compile a style sheet and word list for them. A guide in Word or PDF form they can email to editors will suffice, but open-source platforms like wikis and GitHub repositories offer constant shared access and updating privileges to freelancers and staffers alike. Authors can consult them while they write, so down the line, you may get cleaner copy to edit—win-win!