Write’s updated style guide: what we learned from our clients

Corinna Lines | May 4, 2020

The four most recent editions: 2011 to 2020. Image by Corinna Lines, Write Limited / CC BY-NC-ND

Write published its first style guide in 2004, titled The Write Style Guide for New Zealanders: A manual for business editing. Available to the public from the start, it’s become a standard resource for many writers who don’t have their own in-house guidelines on style.

We’ve always been proud of our work, and happy to share our advice with the world. The latest edition is our eighth — so what’s happened in 16 years?

Since that first edition, we’ve adapted to changes in writing style in the business world. We’ve adjusted to taking a more open approach — working with our clients in a collegial relationship that recognises their expertise as well as ours. Voice and tone are less formal now, using more personal pronouns (we and you). ‘Yours faithfully’ has become all but obsolete!

But the overall plain English principles stand the test of time. So our latest edition is a mixture of new and classic advice.

Why the latest update?

We’ve come a long way with the eighth edition, with its gorgeous cover design — thanks to Craig Christensen at Graphic Solutions. We moved from A4 to a smaller format in 2014, and down to A5 in 2018. The title is now simply The Write Style Guide.

But when we were considering this update, we learned something from our clients. For several years we’d been customising our advice to suit clients who wanted an in-house style guide, and at our initial client meetings we would show them our current edition. The table of contents is always a good way to show the structure of a document, and so we’d go through it to discuss any modifications the client would like.

As I talked to clients, I started to wonder why we had the section on ‘Writing for our readers’ listed alphabetically under W, on page 50. If we tell our workshop participants that it’s the most important thing — perhaps we needed to move this section to the beginning?

So the new edition has that section at the start. We needed to be ‘writing for our readers’ ourselves! Now we start the guide by explaining the principles of plain English and the benefits for the reader. If people only read the first few pages of our style guide, they’ll have seen the most important advice we can give.

Image, sample of reader-focused writing

Putting the most important stuff first. Image by Write Limited. CC BY-NC-ND

What do writers struggle with?

Writers struggle with apostrophes! To clarify the widespread confusion between its/it’s and your/you’re, we’ve added a short section called ‘Possessive pronouns’, in the ‘Apostrophes’ section. Possessive pronouns never take apostrophes.

What else is new?

You’ll still find our helpful tables with suggested ‘plain’ alternatives to complicated language.

To keep up with rapidly changing advice, we direct you to websites where possible rather than putting in lots of explanation or links that might date quickly.

We’ve updated the list of helpful books and websites, separated into style, design, and writing guides.

And we’ve continued to include te reo Māori throughout the guide rather than in a separate section, recognising its place as one of New Zealand’s official languages.

Celebrating 16 years — but still learning

We had celebratory themed cupcakes at staff meeting after the print edition arrived. At Write we love to celebrate achievements, and it was hugely satisfying to see the end result of months of work. Thanks to our style guide clients who helped us too!

Celebrating the latest edition in ‘style’. Image by Corinna Lines, Write Limited / CC BY-NC-ND

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