Your guide to style guides

[intro by Narina Exelby / photograph Sanjay Arora, The WideAngle]

Style guides. If you’re serious about writing and haven’t heard of ’em, or think we’re talking what to wear this season, best you order another coffee, haul out your notebook and start to concentrate. A style guide, dear writer, is a publication’s Bible; a list of rules documenting the style, tone, structure, spelling, grammar, language and quirks of that publication. It’s the linguistic DNA of a brand; the magazine version of Wimbledon’s dress code. Why is it important to you? Because a publication’s style guide should give you vital information on how to write your feature. Take a look at the guide below and you’ll see what I mean – it’s the one CNNGo sends out to freelancers, and is one of the most concise yet comprehensive guides Mark and I have come across (one magazine I worked on had a 120-page style guide…). We’re running this unedited and with full permission from CNNGo, although I have added some comments (in italics) under a few of the points.

CNNGo freelance guide

1/ We write in American English, which usually means ‘z’ not ‘s’ (emphasize, localize), single ‘l’ (traveler, traveled) and removing the ‘u’ in ‘ou’ combinations (color, favor, though we retain it in glamour).

[So simple to do, yet amazing how many writers don’t do this: know whether the publication you’re writing for uses British or American English, and then set your document’s default language setting (and while you’re at it, run spell check). This should take care of the colour/color issues. Something to note: in American English, program always ends in an “m”. In British English, programme always ends in “me”, unless you’re referring to a computer program — NE]

2/ Present tense for all features. (“This is a standard rule,” says JD; I walk through an unlit corridor of the restaurant.)

3/ Our voice is a crucial element of our brand; do not neglect it. Think of our voice as that which would appear in an email to your friends about your trip to Greece, as opposed to the postcard you send your parents to reassure them of your chaste behavior. CNNGo wants the gritty details. This means being sharp, clever and, above all, honest. We are not a website that services the needs of public relations reps or replicates the competition.

[The publication’s voice – very, very important. This is what creates a magazine or website’s identity, and it’s vital you understand what it is – and who the audience is – before you sit down to write. TNT Magazine‘s voice, for example, is a world apart from National Geographic‘s. A good writer will understand that their skill lies not only in their ability to craft interesting and informative stories, but to adjust their own style to reflect that of the publication they’re writing for — NE]

4/ Avoid clichés (like the plague). Clichés and the style of writing typified by the gushy, advertorial prose often found in travel brochures should be avoided at all costs. As should ‘avoided at all costs.’

[Let me repeat this one: avoid clichés. If you’re talented, you’ll find a new way of saying things. But be careful not to create your own cliches – especially if you write for the same publication regularly — NE]

5/ Images should always be sourced from legitimate places and credited accordingly.

6/ Quotes should be introduced first, and then attributed. (“There’s a right way to write quotes and a wrong way,” says Smith. “This is the right way.”)

7/ Service info should be included wherever relevant, for every venue you mention in the piece. (Around the corner is The Blob Shop (123 Blobby Street, Blobville; +852 1234 5668; and several fruit stalls.)

[When you’re researching a feature, collect as much service information as possible. It’s better to provide an editor with more service info than they need, than for them (or you) to call around in a panic for missing info when on deadline — NE]

8/ Interviews should primarily focus on anecdotes and stories. These are the best things you can come away with. After those, opinions. Facts ascertained from interviews should be corroborated and then stated in prose, not as quotes. Also, always check name spelling, occupation or relevant connection, and get a photo.

[My advice to writers is always this: when you quote someone, make sure that the words between those quotation marks add something special to the feature. As soon as you clutter a quote, it loses impact. Quotes are a powerful tool in storytelling – use them wisely — NE]

9/ At the risk of offending some of you, don’t forget the basics. Write concisely. Make your sentences active, interesting and short. Make sure every sentence you write adds something to the story. If in doubt, cut it out.

[Probably the best advice in this guide, right here — NE]

10. Pitches are arguably the most important part of your feature. If your pitch fails, the feature dies. Always supply: the best, most clickable headline you can think of, a 50-word nutgraf and extra info after that.

Miscellaneous style pointers:

[Some of the pointers below, such as time, date, the way telephone numbers are written, are very specific to CNNGo – but this section gives a good indication of how particular a style guide is. The publication’s sub-editors will be able to put the info below into their style in a few minutes, but it is always better to supply copy that’s in line with the publication’s style — NE]

Numbers 1-9 in numerals, 10 and above in digits.

Percent, not per cent or %.

Telephone numbers should include the international code and no hyphens (+852 3112 3128).

We italicize service info, nothing else.

Currencies should always include the US dollar equivalent on first mention.

Job titles in lower case, except formal titles before the name (President Barack Obama).

Time: 11 a.m. (note the space and period points).

Dates: July 4, 2011

Measurements: Use metric and spell out meter, kilometer etc.

Quote marks: Direct quotes, and all artistic endeavors (book titles, film titles, poems, paintings, written articles, computer game titles, TV program titles, lectures, speeches and other works of art) should be included within double quotation marks. Exceptions are magazine titles, the Bible and reference works, such as dictionaries and encyclopedias.

Capitalize Internet.

United States, not U.S. or US, except when as an adjective, when it should be: U.S. tourists, U.S. president etc.

1970s, not 1970’s or ‘70s.

Single space after a period.

Banned words:



“Dish,” as a verb



leaps and bounds

first time ever: first time is sufficient


there’s something for everyone

bustling, and hustle and bustle

Want to write more? Then don’t miss these 10 tips on how to get published, this guide on how to go about doing your feature research, or this post on eight golden rules for freelancers.


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