Business Writing Style Guide

Business Writing Style Guide

While discussing new writing projects with potential clients, I am frequently asked which business writing style guide I follow.  While I’ve read the style guides from several publishers, I don’t rigorously follow any; style guides tend to be too long and rules too obscure to for me to consistently remember.

For my own business writing style guide, I’ve developed an amalgam of what I feel are common-sense high-level British and American writing rules.  I’ve consolidated them here in an informal, concise guide that I can point clients and co-workers to when I’m asked next time.

Since my writing style shares characteristics of both British and American, this document can also serve as a guide to the differences between both styles of writing.


American English requires that acronyms—”F.B.I.”, “N.S.A”., “C.I.A.”, etc—have periods between each letter, since these are abbreviations.  British English doesn’t, making “FBI”, “NSA”, “CIA”, etc. all correct.  I prefer the look of the British approach, and follow that rule.

Both styles generally require periods for Latin abbreviations, including e.g. and i.e.  I follow this rule.

American English likewise specifies that the abbreviation for versus be appended by a period, so, “vs.”.  An exception to this is the American Law rule that it be shortened to “v.” (British legal documents use “v” without the terminating full stop).  British English rules define “vs”, without the period, as correct.  I follow the British rule.


Comma rules are easy enough, except when it comes to separating a list of three or more terms, when deciding whether to place a comma before the conjunction (typically or or and).  The issues are consistency and, arguably, clarity.

For consistency, I always place an Oxford comma, also referred to as a serial comma or series comma, prior to the conjunction.  If the comma preceding the conjunction doesn’t make sense, I rewrite the sentence.

Everyone’s read funny examples demonstrating why Oxford commas are important.  With the Oxford comma, there are clearly at least four people on the invitation list :

We invited the baristas, JFK, and Stalin

However without the Oxford comma, arguably only two people are expected:

We invited the baristas, JFK and Stalin

When Oxford comma use is consistent, there is no question at to intent.


British English specifies that dates should be written in order from most specific to most general, Day/Month/Year, format.  American English most commonly requires dates in Month/Day/Year format.  While the British style is more logical, unless the audience is global, I follow the American rule.

I never use British terminology like “half five”, “8th of March”, or, for Pete’s sake, “fortnight”, preferring instead to use the more straightforward, “5:30”, “March 8th”, “two weeks”.

Hyphen vs Em Dash vs. En Dash

A reader accurately pointed out that I inconsistently use hyphens and dashes.  These are the rules by which I do my best:

  • The hyphen is the shortest of the three horizontal marks, and is used primarily to create compound words, e.g. “single-quoted”, “double-quoted”. I don’t use spaces around a hyphen unless its hanging as part of a list, e.g. “single- and double-quoted”. The hyphen key is just above the letter “p” and unshifted.
  • En dash is the middle child—longer than a hyphen but shorter than an em dash, and frequently overlooked. En dash indicates “through”, and is most commonly used to indicate inclusive time, date, and page ranges, (e.g. “Jan–Dec”, “9–5”).
  • The em dash is the longest of these marks. I use it to break the end of a sentence out from the main clause, or to enclose a word or phrase. I prefer the emphasis that spaces around an em dash provide—but the correct approach is no spaces.
  • Fun fact: the en dash is the width of the letter N and em dash is the width of the letter M.


When counting up to nine things, I spell the words representing the numbers.  For 10 things or more, I use the numbers.  The Chicago Manual of Style prescribes spelling out numbers up to 100, as well as large round numbers, but that looks old-timey: for example, 52 versus fifty-two.


American English requires that punctuation that is not part of the quotation be inside the quotation marks, making, for example, the following correct: “Describe the risk management strategy used by the vendor,” he said.  British English keeps this punctuation outside the quotation marks, making the following correct: “Describe the risk management strategy used by the vendor”, he said. I follow the British style.

Initial quotations are identified with single quotes in British English, with inner quotations surrounded by double-quotes.  American English specifies the opposite: initial quotations are double-quoted, with inner quotations single-quoted.  I follow the American style.

Semi-colons and Colons

I use semi-colons to separate lists where items themselves include commas; this is pretty normal.  I also use colons, a lot– probably too much.  I like to use colons where whatever is described in the second phrase is clearly a result from the first.

Spaces After Periods

Modern punctuation rules dictate that there should be one space following a period or full stop, however two spaces looks better and is easier to read. I recognize that the rules have changed but I still use two spaces.


British English rules require that time be shown in a 24-hour, neo-decimal format, e.g. 16.15 or 16:15 instead of 4:15PM, while American English requires a semi-colon separator.  While my computer, phone, watch, and alarm clock are all set up to use the 24-hour, military-style time display, for business writing, I follow the American rule.


American English specifies that titles – Mr., Mrs., Ms., Dr., etc. – require periods, while British English does not, making Mr, Mrs, Ms, Dr. etc. all correct.  I follow the British rules, which look cleaner.


While spelling rules differences between British and American English, I follow American spelling rules, favoring, for instance, “center” vs “centre”, “honor” vs “honour”, “while” vs “whilst”, “legalize” vs “legalise”.  That said, if my client is in a part of the world dominated by British grammar, I follow their local rules.


Differences between British and American vocabulary are too numerous to mention, but unless I know that the local word can be construed as offensive by a non-American reader,  I stick to American vocabulary.  So “trainers”, “jumper”, and “boot”, get the boot, as it were, in favor of “sneakers”, “sweater”, and “trunk”, respectively.  That said, I will use “trousers” instead of “pants” regardless of the locale to which my document is destined.

I avoid empty words, so no “really”, “very”, “virtually”, etc., and obvious phrases, like “honestly”, “in my opinion”, etc.


In American English, plural dates have an apostrophe between the year and the following “s”, e.g. 1960’s, ’30’s, etc., while British English omits the apostrophe, e.g. 1960s, ’30s, etc.  Note that both styles require a preceding apostrophe where information is omitted, in this case, “19” denoting the century.  I follow British style.

Style Guide References

Here is a list of online and hard-copy style guides worth reviewing.

Example RFP Response

Example RFP Response

The following is an example RFP response that I wrote in response to a question that I was given as part of a hiring test. The answer is entirely hypothetical, but based on actual experience at prior employers.

1.1 Describe the risk management strategy used by the vendor and outline any software tools used in support.


The firm takes a multidimensional approach to risk management, assessing and mitigating risks to the firm, customers, products, and projects.

On a firm-wide level, physical, market, human, technology infrastructure risks and responses are assessed and reviewed quarterly.  Our risk prioritization process assesses the likelihood of occurrence, and managed through process  definition, physical facilities planning, business planning, training, redundancy and failover capabilities, disaster recovery and other scenarios run-throughs, and insurance.   Risk review, assessment, and mitigation plans are collected by department managers, and reviewed and approved by senior management.  The entire risk assessment and response process is managed and tracked using Logic Manager Enterprise Risk Management software suite.

On a project level, risk to project scope, schedule, resourcing, and quality are managed by each project manager, using JIRA risk management tools to document, assessment tools to score, and stakeholder meetings to prioritize and respond to each.  Risk registers, along with issue registers and other project documentation, are standardized by the PMO to be used across all projects and permissioned to be accessible by all stakeholders for review.  Projects are managed to schedule and cost baselines using MS Project.  To ensure on-time delivery, a contingency budget is allocated to every project and a management reserve is available when resource availability stands in the way of on-time delivery and/or quality.

Both Logic Manager and JIRA maintain full audit trail and history of risk creation, transition, and resolution.  Snapshots are taken daily, with weekly backups stored off-site for seven years.  The ability of users of either system to create/edit/delete issues is permissioned on a per-user-role at the firm.

Colin Powell’s 13 Rules of Leadership

Colin Powell’s 13 Rules of Leadership

Colin Powell, former NSA advisor, commander of the US Army, and Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, published a simple list of practical management guidelines, referred to as Colin Powell’s 13 Rules of Leadership. This simple, well balanced advice emphasizes calm, optimism, generosity, fearlessness, and careful consideration. This matches my own approach to management, regardless of whether my role in the group is as a true manager or sole contributor.

Here are Colin Powell’s 13 Rules of Leadership, from his great book, It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership.

  1. It ain’t as bad as you think.
  2. Get mad, then get over it.
  3. Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego goes with it.
  4. It can be done.
  5. Be careful what you choose. You may get it.
  6. Don’t let adverse facts stand in the way of a good decision.
  7. You can’t make someone else’s choices.
  8. Check small things.
  9. Share credit.
  10. Remain calm. Be kind.
  11. Have a vision.
  12. Don’t take counsel of your fears or naysayers.
  13. Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.


When to Start Collecting Social Security

When to Start Collecting Social Security

The biggest challenge for Americans who are approaching retirement age face is deciding when to start collecting Social Security. The choices are whether to start collecting Social Security earlier and receive smaller payments, or wait to start collecting it later and receive larger payments.

Social Security Statements

The amount of Social Security you are eligible to start collecting depends on how much you’ve paid into it over the course of your working life. The Social Security Administration will send a statement to you every 5 years from ages 25-60, and, after that, 3 months prior to your birthday, that shows your earnings record and future benefits estimate. You may also check your account online through the MY SSA web site.

Calculating Social Security Earnings

when-to-collect-social-securityFor every year that you collect Social Security payments early costs about 7% of what you could earn by waiting. This is true until you reach 70, when your potential payment maxes out. In other words, every year past age 62 that you wait before collecting Social Security increases your monthly benefit by about 7%. Continue reading

What is an Earnings Surprise?

What is an Earnings Surprise?

Casual investors need to know what an earnings surprise is, and how it may affect their investment decisions.

How are earnings announced?

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) requires companies to publish their unaudited financial results in quarterly statements (called a 10-Q) no later than 35-45 days after the end of each quarter, and an annual 10-K statement at the end of the financial year. Larger companies tend to present their quarterly results via publicly accessible conference call and the web, along with other relevant information (profit and loss, operating expenses, issues that affected earnings, future plans, etc.).

Firms may submit a non-timely filing if results must be postponed.  The NT filing gives firms an additional five days to submit.  Financial analysts typically consider an NT filing to be an indicator of trouble for the firm, and lower expectations, and projections of stock price, as a result. Continue reading