A writing standard is a dress code for documents

Diana Burns | March 6, 2017

What is the dress code at your workplace? Why do you have one? (And what does ‘smart-casual’ mean anyway?)

What people wear at work gives customers information about what the business does and how it wants to be seen.

Dress communicates information about identity, standards, and reputation — even before a word is spoken.

Airline hostesses in 1970

These uniforms told passengers NAC was a stylish, modern airline. Image from Archives NZ / CC BY

Documents written to a standard communicate similar things — even before a word is read. A writing standard tells writers how they should write for a business, and covers presentation, structure, and language elements. The resulting documents set customer expectations about the business in much the same way a dress code does.

Your customers form impressions from their first glance

Your customers form impressions from their first glance at a document. They’ll notice the title and headings, the typeface, colour and space, and any images. These presentation elements tell your customers a lot about your business — for example, whether it’s friendly, modern, formal, or bureaucratic.

I often ask writers how they want to be seen. Should the customer’s mental picture be of someone in shorts and a T-shirt, or someone in uniform? Getting the presentation right sets the tone and prepares your customers for your message. Getting the presentation wrong may mean your customer never starts reading.

Once customers are reading your document, they’re more likely to stay to the end if the structure and language support their first impression.

I’m working with a business that has set a writing standard, and is supporting it with training and resources. The people I’m working with are practical, expert, and friendly — and they look it. (I suspect that might be what ‘smart-casual’ means.)

When they write to the standard, their documents appear the same way.

Insights, tips, and professional development opportunities.