The Editorial Style Guide: The Hobgoblin of Big Minds

Perhaps someone has suggested that your school could use an editorial style guide, but you’re not sure what one is, much less why you need one.

The answer to the first part is easy: An editorial style guide (or style manual) does for copy what its graphic counterpart does for visuals. It sets standards that everyone who communicates on behalf of the school adheres to.

The answer to the second part is also easy: A style guide is a tool that helps ensure that your school is known for what it wants to be known for—excellence. Remember that everything written by a school is a reflection of the school. (Disclosure time: I started my professional life and still do work as an editor, and my clients are sometimes perplexed but always happy that I did and do.)

It goes without saying that every piece of writing seen by an external audience should have proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation. It’s a school after all. If your faculty and administrators can’t write correctly, what does that say about your school’s educational quality? And if you think that email, texting, and spell check have devalued pesky things like syntax and semicolons (other than for emoticons), think again. We do still judge people by how good they rite. ;-)

The same thinking applies to acceptable usage and consistency. An example of the former: Which versions of the school name are acceptable: Lehman School, the Lehman School, Lehman, Old Lehman, or any other nickname? If you don’t want to be known as Old Lehman (and I don’t!), be clear that no one at the school should refer to it that way.

Consistency examples are legion. Know and use official department and office names, like Office of Admission(s) vs. Admission(s) Office, Department of World Languages vs. Foreign Languages. Ditto for people’s titles, including when/if to capitalize. The list goes on: advisor vs. adviser, first names vs. last names with titles, when numbers are spelled out and when they’re figures, the style for grades (tenth grade/10th grade/grade ten/grade 10/sophomores/a combination), and whether to use serial commas. (I think serial commas are a work of art, but like all art, they’re a matter of taste.) When schools are consistent, they are perceived as professional. If they are inconsistent, they can look sloppy.

Style guides should be accompanied by the school’s brand messaging—again, so that all communications are in concert with what the school wants to project.

I have worked with schools whose administrators, including heads of school, were unhappy with or, worse, embarrassed by what well-intentioned staff members had sent out. :-( Having a clearly explained style guide—along with guidelines about what can and can’t go out without going through an editing process—is the best way to avoid this.

Some schools have long, meticulous style guides. Others are basic. (Check out the InspirED Portfolio for some examples to use as a catalyst for starting or revising your own.) You can always add content over time. Just make sure that someone at your school is in charge of the guide, so that standards can be set, explained to all writers, and maintained.

No matter the audience—whether pre-K parents or prospective summer camp goers (or is that “prekindergarten” and “summer program?”)—the better your communications look, the better your school looks. :-)

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Andrea Lehman

STRATEGIST, WRITER, AND EDITOR  Andrea Lehman is a freelance marketing strategist, writer, and editor for independent schools and colleges as well as for travel guides. Author of Fodor’s Around Philadelphia with Kids, she previously was Editorial Director of the School Division (college and independent secondary school guides) for Peterson's Guides. She and her daughters are the proud products of terrific independent school educations.