“There’s only one way to eat an elephant—one bite at a time.”
This is one of the many great lessons that my dad has taught me. It’s helped me overcome feeling overwhelmed at the beginning of many large projects, and it’s been especially helpful throughout my career as a financial writer.
If I try to think about all of the work that goes into writing a white paper, I’m not sure that I have the energy to do it. But if I instead realize that writing is just a series of many small, manageable steps and I remind myself that I only need to focus on doing one of those tasks at a time, then it’s easy to get started.
This same principle applies when you create a style guide for your financial writing. If you think you need to come up with a comprehensive list of all of the grammar, punctuation, number usage, and other stylistic issues that show up in your financial communications, the task of creating a style guide will seem daunting. But, if you instead realize that creating a style guide is just a series of small, easy steps, you will feel a lot better about getting started.
The first step is determining how you want to organize your style guide.
I recommend organizing it by type of rule. For example, all of the punctuation rules are in one section, all of the capitalization rules are in another section, etc. Some writers and editors recommend organizing the rules alphabetically, and there certainly are some merits to this approach. But I’ve found that creating sections for the different types of rules and then organizing the rules alphabetically within those sections makes it easiest for users of the style guide to find what they are looking for.
So which sections should you include? If you’re a financial services firm, I recommend that you start with these five:
- Capitalization: It’s important to be consistent in which words you capitalize and which you leave as lower case. Do you capitalize the names of your company’s departments, services, and products? Do you capitalize all words in headlines and sub-headlines? These are just a few of the capitalization-related questions you will want to address in this section.
- Names and titles: If you work with people who think that having their job title capitalized is a status symbol—trust me, there are a lot more of these people out there than you can imagine—having rules in place for how and when titles are capitalized can save you a lot of grief. You will also want to decide how you will handle referring to individuals on second reference (i.e., do you use just the person’s last name or do you add Mr./Ms.?)
- Numbers: Finance professionals love numbers because they are straightforward and objective, right? Well, if you don’t have rules in place for how you will handle numbers in your marketing communications, you will quickly realize that writing about numbers is anything but straightforward. Some questions you might want to address: How many digits past the decimal point do you show? Do you spell out numbers or use numerals?
- Punctuation: There are many grammar “rules” that are up for debate when it comes to punctuation. Should you use the serial (a.k.a. Oxford) comma, which is the comma before “and” in a series of three or more? Should you use periods at the end of longer bullet points? While there may not be a consensus among grammarians about these rules, there should be consistency within your firm’s writing.
- Miscellaneous: Many style issues won’t fit neatly into any of the previous four categories. But that doesn’t mean these rules aren’t important. That’s why it’s useful to have a section that serves as a “junk drawer” in your style guide. This section might include things like a list of compound modifiers that require a hyphen, a list of commonly used acronyms (e.g., IRS or SEC) that you don’t have to spell out on first reference, or whether you use first or third person when referring to your firm.
Other sections that you might want to include are guidelines about the tone and voice that you use in marketing communications and information about your design and formatting standards.
To help you get started on your style guide, we have created a template for you.
About the Author
Scott Wentworth is the founder and head financial writer at Wentworth Financial Communications. Scott and the team of writers and editors at WFC help professionals across the financial services industry build their brands by creating investment-grade white papers, bylined articles, newsletters, blogs, social media posts, and other forms of content marketing.