«Return to Blog List Writers: How to Referee Style Rules


During the NFL playoffs, referees’ calls can ultimately decide a win or loss.

Their job is to know the rules and make sure that players follow them. But sometimes their calls inspire boos from the coaches, players and fans.

Freelance copwriters are not unlike referees.

On a project, writers are often in the role of referee – enforcing STYLE rules.

Depending on the types of projects you work on, anywhere from two to maybe 8 people may be reviewing your thoughtfully written copy.

There’s at least one marketing manager, if not more, and perhaps a PR or sales person. Then there’s maybe a product manager.

If you work on customer case studies, an additional three to four people at the customer’s organization may review your story.

Chances are, there will be differences of opinion about whether “website” is one word or two, whether titles should be capitalized or whether a comma goes before the last “and.”

To solve these differences – and maintain consistency across all communications – you need a set of rules.

And if you’re the writer, be the editorial style referee.

But how do you do so diplomatically?

Throw the book at ’em

Newspapers and magazines have long followed style guidelines, whether Associated Press style, Chicago Manual of Style or their own versions. Companies need such guidelines as well for all their communications.

Freelance writers should usually follow the style of the companies they write for, unless those companies have no specific style guidelines.

If the organization doesn’t have its own editorial guidelines, bring your own style. When you send first drafts to your contacts, let them know that you follow style X.

When questions come up during the editing process, simply refer to the specific style guidelines as your reasoning for doing something like leaving out that extra comma before the last “and” in a sentence.

Company-created style

Several companies I’ve written for over the years have had their own style guidelines. They set down in writing exactly how they want certain aspects of their copy to go.

In many cases, their style is a hybrid. They mostly follow a standard style guide but have modifications for their communications.

Learn and follow those guidelines closely.

Earn your stripes

As you merge edits from multiple reviewers, make sure that the copy follows the established style. If someone makes changes that conflict with those rules, just let them know you follow company style.

It’s like saying, these are the rules we play by on our turf.

It can be hard to be a ref, but it’s part of the writer’s job.

Have you ever been boo-ed for refereeing edits?

7 Responses to Writers: How to Referee Style Rules

  1. Karen Marley says:

    Timely advice! I just ran into this situation in two layers. I was writing an advertorial and had questions that weren’t addressed by magazine’s style guide. Then the responsibility came to me to referee the style edits for the client who had a different idea of what was correct…so I turned to the Chicago Manual of Style.

    Thanks for a great analogy. It will help when the style issue inevitably comes up again.

  2. Casey Hibbard says:

    Hi Karen,

    Yes, isn’t it nice to have a manual to fall back on when questions come up? “Look, the book says do this!” Sometimes clients are readily willing to go with what you say while others – with writing/English backgrounds – have opinions about how it should be based on their experience.

    Thanks for the comment!

  3. Jacqueline Peters says:

    Very good advice. It is something writers do not think about when approaching a project. So If the company doesn’t have their own guidelines, what style do you normally follow?
    Thanks for bringing attention to the subject.

  4. Casey Hibbard says:

    Hi Jacqueline,

    Thanks for your comment. My pleasure. I’ve found a few companies over the years have had their own style guides or know they want to use AP Style, but most need guidance on the matter.


  5. I just did a first time case study for a company that handed me a brief style guide which accompanied their case study template. It was a first for me. It was really helpful because it is a UK client and I can always use help on the Queen’s English. It really simplified the process.

    I often work for industries / clients where no one is leading a particluar way on style, so I keep my copy of Strunk & White close by. I graduated from college a long time ago but I still need something occasionally to help me sort through the Kate Turabian still in my head from those days.

  6. Casey Hibbard says:

    Hi Steve,

    Thanks for sharing that example. How nice to have a style guide from your UK client!

    I have the AP Style Manual on my shelf as my default style, but I’m finding that our lexicon is changing so quickly with new words, that I need a new one every couple of years. Now you can subscribe to that and the Chicago manual online.

    All the best,

  7. Mark McClure says:

    @Steve – The Queen’s English, indeed! I grew up with a version of that and still remain mystified on occasions!

    Chicago manual of style online for $35 annually.
    Looks like a bargain.

    Is anyone here a subscriber and care to comment on the value received?