One little comma can create a whole lot of havoc.

Whether to use the serial comma—a.k.a. the Oxford comma—before “and” to separate three or more items in text is a hotly debated copyediting topic. Do you prefer apples, oranges, and pears? Or apples, oranges and pears? Proponents say the series comma makes things clearer, while opponents say it takes up valuable character space.

Confusion and disagreement over editorial styles arise during many writing projects. Project managers don’t want their writers slowed down by backtracking to remove or add series commas, or to make any other stylistic changes while an important project is in progress. Correcting a serial comma placed willy-nilly can cost time and money.

Wordsmithie works with both large corporations and small to midsize businesses. Some have very detailed in-house editorial style guidelines, while others don’t. Some organizations figure out their style guidelines on the fly. Items up for debate include …

– Capitalization of titles, departments, products, websites and other names
– Whether to hyphenate, close up or leave open certain terms, especially Internet terms—e-mail vs. email, website vs. web site, etc.
– How to spell website addresses, particularly if the URL contains the company name (e.g., www.LoveMyWriter.com vs. www.lovemywriter.com)
– Bullet-list capitalization and punctuation
– Whether to treat numbers as figures or spell them out (spelling out one through nine, for example, and using figures for 10 and greater)
– And, yes, the sometimes beloved, often dreaded serial comma (and its punctuation cousins—the colon, semicolon, hyphen and dash)

Whether you’re developing in-house editorial guidelines from scratch, or adding to existing guidelines, these tips can help you get your commas, caps and dashes in a row:

Have one person gather, update and manage your style guidelines
Let one person own the guidelines and take charge of updates. Start by making a list of all names, terms and preferences particular to your organization’s writing. Ask your marketing and content creation people for the editorial questions they most frequently encounter. Create a table of contents to organize your editorial style guidelines into easy-to-reference sections.

Choose an existing style manual and stick to it
Two venerated style manuals have stood the test of time (and variables introduced by the Internet). These are The Associated Press Stylebook, preferred by newspaper and magazine journalists, and The Chicago Manual of Style, a favorite of students, academics, researchers and educators. Grammar Girl Mignon Fogarty also offers tips on her website and social media that actually make grammar questions fun.

Keep a running list of terms, punctuation and stylistic issues
Your in-house editorial style guidelines should be a living, evolving document. Keep it updated and share it with everyone who needs it. This will save them all time, money and frustration.

In this digital age of Internet slang, truncated tweets and LOL text-speak, you might ask why you need in-house editorial style guidelines. Consistency. Treating your words consistently across all your content pieces is a subtle, yet important way to convey credibility. If you’d like help developing your style guidelines, please contact Wordsmithie any time. We can wield a mean serial comma—or rein it in, if you prefer.

Heidi LaFleche

Heidi launched her writing career as a newspaper and magazine journalist—most notably as a Boston correspondent for People magazine. She transitioned into marketing communications for business, helping clients find the right words to engage their audiences. Heidi is a Senior Editor for Wordsmithie, and also runs her own freelance writing business on the side. She writes within a range of industries including technology, healthcare, financial services, legal services, education and nonprofits. Her slogan: “Every business has a story. Let’s tell yours together.”
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