Using style guides

Creating internally consistent proposal documents is always a challenge, especially with large proposals written by several content developers or—in the case of joint venture bids—different companies.

Earlier posts examined information architecture, organizing for content consistency and one voicing. Below this macro level, small inconsistencies—for example, in naming conventions, capitalization, use of abbreviations—can also weaken your proposal.

A style guide can minimize this risk.

Style guide contents

The most helpful style guides are few pages—long enough to contain the essentials, and short enough so writers actually read and refer to them. Organize yours under these main sections:

  • Plain language: Ask writers to use active voice, plain language writing free of overly complex sentences, bafflegab, trite phrases, and jargon. Provide a table pairing acceptable and unacceptable phrases common to your industry.
  • Capitalization and punctuation: Specify rules for capitalizing titles (project manager), plans and programs (quality management plan) and working groups (health and safety committee). Explain what, if any, punctuation should follow abbreviations and list items.
  • Naming conventions: Specify acceptable short forms and acronyms (if any) for the issuer, the proponent (or team member names in joint ventures), reference projects, committees, plans, and reports. How should acronyms be introduced in the first instance? Should writers refer to the prospect in the second person (you, your) or only by its proper name? Is first person (we, us) acceptable for the proponent?
  • Abbreviations: How should writers abbreviate weights and measures commonly used in your industry? How should currency amounts be written (CAD$ 5 million or C$ 5m)? Is it OK to use % for percent? Should provinces and states be abbreviated (ON for Ontario)?
  • Language and standards: Specify which dictionary to use—e.g. English (Canadian). Will the proposal use metric or imperial measures?

Build it over time

Don’t expect perfection on your first attempt—but do edit carefully. Style guides, by definition, shouldn’t include errors or inconsistencies.

Create a master style guide and customize it for each project. To simplify version control during a project, we like to give everyone the path to a shared storage location or publish a link that always brings up the current version.

After each project, review and update the master style guide with any new global items.

Expect benefits—but not miracles

Distribute the style guide to everyone producing and editing content—but be realistic in your expectations.

Language skills vary widely across most teams. Some subject matter experts and content developers catch on quickly; others never master even the basics, much less the small stuff. But your editors will now have a clear set of rules to help them build consistent output.

One thing is certain—however attractive the idea of carefully proofreading a large proposal just before submission, it seldom happens. A much more realistic way of achieving content consistency is to build it into the development process.

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