How long did it take you to get ready for work this morning? It takes me about an hour: I shave, shower, spray a little cologne, press my slacks and shirt. Why? For better or worse, how you look matters, and here on K St. in Washington, DC, where $2,000 Brooks Brothers suits are a dime a dozen, style counts.
Yet, while most would agree that looking presentable is an essential aspect of professional life, attention to written style is rarely followed as closely as the season’s fashion trends. I’m not sure how to account for this, particularly given the impressive resumes tossed around inside the beltway, boasting degrees from Harvard, Georgetown, et al. The Ivy League and other schools cost tens of thousands of dollars a year, and if after an expensive degree, one believes comma placement is interpretive and optional, someone hasn’t been paying attention.
By “style” I mean the mechanics of writing – grammar, punctuation and phrasing. What I do not mean is personal style – the way you write, your tone and voice. Personal style exists for editorials, blogs and memoirs; the style discussed here applies to all writing.
Professional writing is more than using your spell check and doing what you can to get rid of the green squiggly lines Microsoft Word inserts when your sentences aren’t quite sentences. Truly professional writing follows the rules 99 percent of the time, and breaks them once in a blue moon – and even then, intentionally.
Perhaps the biggest challenge to a widespread adherence to style is that it isn’t always seen as essential. When time is money, style can become superfluous and expendable. Why spend billable hours ensuring your copy meets the highest standards? So long as the content is there, that’s good enough, right? Sure, and if I don’t have to see my clients in person until next week, I’ll just wear my pajamas tomorrow.
Style is important, because it places your writing within a context of commonly agreed upon methods for written communication. The written word can be more difficult to understand than spoken words because it lacks the intonation and physical gestures that help us express ourselves. That’s one reason style exists. It enhances ideas, helping words carry maximum meaning and clarity because as English speakers and writers, we have a common understanding of what style tells us about the content.
Conversely, incorrect use (or absence) of style hinders communication. Readers are confused by inconsistent or absent style. To keep a reader’s attention focused on content and the important concepts therein, style must be consistent and accurate.
Style also contributes to brand reputation. Although a company, organization or agency is made up of many professionals, its public face must be singular – one voice expressing the same concepts and practices in the same way. Multiple styles originating from the same source prevents a cohesive voice and can cause serious issues with quality control.
Here are some resources to help put you on the road to clean style:
Books on Style
The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White: Ask any writer or editor for the best book on composing clean copy in English, and Strunk and White will be in the top five. On my bookshelf, I keep this one next to my religious texts. ‘Nuff said.
A Writer’s Reference, by Diana Hacker: This is the shopping mall of good style. I’ve been referencing this book for nearly a decade, and I always come away with another best practice.
Associated Press: Sometimes called the Journalist’s Bible, this has long been a standard for correct style. It’s a good place to look when seeking style for specific words or phrasing (e.g., spelling for website or e-mail), punctuation use and when to capitalize.
Government Printing Office (GPO): Though not always perfect, government publications do strive for correct style. That’s why the GPO put together an extensive style manual. It’s a solid resource, whatever your industry.
Chicago: If you went to college, chances are you’ve run into Chicago style before. It’s a good one, particularly for more academic writing.
No one is perfect, and even the best writers can miss things. But here’s my pitch – for all the hours you spend attending to your wardrobe and hairdo, dedicate a few minutes to improving your attention to style. It’s no less important, and if you want to stand out as a professional, there are far fewer who can boast good style than good fashion.