By Paul Emanuelli

This article is an excerpt from The Art of Tendering: A Global Due Diligence Guide, which is available for purchase.

Maintaining consistency in your tendering documents won’t just ensure that your solicitations look and sound professional, but will also ensure that the legal terms and conditions of the process remain the same and intact across each RFX document.

Your organization should consider adopting professional editing practices as part of your procurement processes, enabling everyone from your drafters to your legal counsel to the final proofreaders to write, review, and edit all of your documents, organization-wide, consistently.

Establishing a Style Guide

Style guides are used by organizations to establish writing and communication standards across the various working groups within the organization. They focus on the high-level style of writing, such as what type of voice your organization writes in and communicates in, and pays micro-level attention on punctuation, spelling, and formatting.

The first step to formalizing your organization’s style guide is to select a professional style guide that will serve as the foundation of your organization’s style guide rules. Specifically, many different scholarly and professional communication bodies have their own style guides that you can purchase and use in your own organization. The benefits of basing your style guide on a widely recognized source is that it will have pre-established standards you can simply adopt, instead of having to decide on those standards yourself, and as style questions come up, you have a pre-built manual to reference.

Examples of some well-renown style guides include the following:

  • The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law was created by American journalists for those who work with or are connected to the Associated Press.
  • The Cambridge Guide to English Usage is based on extensive research of a variety of different writing styles and geographical preferences to provide an overview of US, UK, Canada, and Australia usage.
  • The Chicago Manual of Style has been published by the University of Chicago Press since 1906 and is widely used in publishing.
  • The New Oxford Style Manual began as a compilation of best practices and standards of a variety of publishing houses worked at by Horace Hunt, and now is the pre-eminent British English usage guide.

Once you have chosen your base style guide, you can then work on deciding where you will differ – while the professional style guide you have selected will be thorough in its treatment of prescriptive grammar and spelling, it is not unique to your organization. When you create your style guide, you will first reference the main expert manual you are using, and then describe where your organization’s style differs from it.

For example, while the Procurement Office has a global readership, it is a North American organization headquartered in Canada that deals with legal content from multiple international jurisdictions, including many Commonwealth countries. As a North American organization, the Procurement Office’s default style guide is the Chicago Manual of Style; however, since it also deals with Commonwealth content, it favours British English spelling (except when citing sources from the US that use US spelling), and therefore also relies on the Oxford English Dictionary for spelling and on the Canadian Guide to Uniform Legal Citation for citing statutes and case names. The Procurement Office has then adopted its own “house rules” for integrating these different sources into a uniform style guide for drafting solicitation documents and publications.

Deciding on a Voice

One of the main purposes of a style guide is to provide a standard for communications within your organization. The first of these standards to define is the voice or the style you would like your organization to communicate in as a base standard. For example, a school board might want to communicate in a relaxed, approachable tone when speaking directly to students or on their social media accounts, whereas they would want a professional style when drafting their solicitation documents and corresponding with vendors.

It’s important to decide how you want to be perceived by your audience when deciding on what voice you will choose. Take a look at past publications and communications and consider what message you are sending your audience. Do you like how you would be perceived, or do you want to make a change? Creating a style guide is an excellent way to take stock of past communication failures and make adjustments to ensure future communication successes.

Abbreviations and Acronyms

We use abbreviations in our everyday speech and writing, especially online in emails and text messages. The question is: how do we want them formatted, represented, and used in all of our communications?

Abbreviations are the shortened versions of words and phrases. Abbreviations can simply be a shortened version of itself, such as appt. for appointment or abbrev. for abbreviation, or an acronym, which is a collection of the first initials from a multi-word term or phrase, such as NATO or CFTA.

While abbreviations seem like they would help declutter a document from repetitive long words and terms, over-abbreviating can cause mass chaos in trying to keep in mind what each abbreviation means or is abbreviating. Make sure that you use abbreviations sparingly, limiting them to globally known abbreviations or acronyms instead of abbreviations of your own invention.

It is also vital that you establish how you will abbreviate words, the abbreviations you will use, and where it is acceptable to use them when establishing your style guide. This is especially important in legal documents, as an abbreviation is a reference to another word, and it is important that the writer and the reader understand exactly what word or term that abbreviation is referring to with no ambiguity. Additionally, any abbreviation that you use must be spelled and used consistently throughout the entire document.

Your organization will also have to make stylistic decisions, such as considering whether you have periods in between the letters of an acronym, like U.S., or not, like UK.  You will have to think about the acronyms and abbreviations you use that are specific to your organization – will you use them only in internal communications or will you use them outgoing documents? Further, if you use them in outgoing communications, are they properly defined and do they help or hinder the understandability of your document?

Citations and References

Referring to other works within your documents may not come up often, but it’s still worth considering how you will incorporate them when and if you need to. This is especially important when writing your addenda, your rectification notices, your notice of selection, and other communications that reference your main solicitation document. Ensuring the references are clearly noted, either by italicizing or bolding the section names, that they are properly capitalized, and that they are accurately reproduced are all important factors to consider. By creating a standard surrounding citations, you will also help your audience be able to pick out where the references are for easy access.

Headings

When putting together your document, there are different levels of headings and titles to consider – the main document heading, the chapter or main section headings, the subsection headings within the document, and perhaps, even minor headings within those. It’s important to keep them consistent throughout your document, as these form the navigation system for your reader. They let you know the subject of the document, what facet of that subject forms the sections, and what sub-topic you are reading about within the section. Without headings, your document will flow into itself with no clear delineation between the different parts. If your headings are not formatted consistently, your reader won’t know if what they are looking at is a new point within the section, or a brand-new topic within your document.

Considerations for headings include:

  • capitalization – title case or sentence case
  • formatting – font size, bolding, italicization
  • justification – centered or left-justified
  • spacing – how much space before and after the heading; how much space before the next paragraph or section

Lists

Lists are an excellent way to provide information in a clean, concise format, but when lists are not used carefully, they can cause a breakdown in communicating your document’s intention.

When considering the standards for your lists, you should consider two types of lists: ordered lists and unordered lists.

Ordered lists contain items that need to be put into a specific order, using numbers or letters to denote each and demonstrating their order. Examples of ordered lists can include instructions that must be followed in a specific sequence or items that must be submitted in order. It’s important to number the items in an ordered list for items to indicate the specific order. Organizations should not use bullets for ordered lists.

Unordered lists are groupings of items in no particular order and can be denoted with bullet points or numbers. When considering an unordered list, determine whether the items that you are listing can be ordered in any way or if they require a specific sequencing in an ordered list. Numbered unordered lists contain items that need to be counted, but can be listed in any order. For example, if your document talks about four key items that can appear in any order, you should number them, allowing your reader to count along with you as they read.

You reader will not only receive information from what is in your documents, but also from how you present the information in your documents. If you number a list, your reader will assume a particular order or importance has been given to those numbers. If you bullet a list, your reader will assume that the grouping matters, but not the order of the items.

Formatting considerations for lists can include the following:

  • tiers in ordered lists – is your first tier denoted with numbers, your second tier by lowercase letters, and your third with lowercase Roman numerals? Is this consistent in every ordered list you write?
  • tiers in unordered lists – do you use solid circle bullets for the first tier, empty circle bullets for the second tier, and solid squares for the third tier? Is this consistent in every unordered list you write? When you number your unordered lists, are you following the ordered lists rules?
  • spacing – consider the spacing before a list, between items in a list, and after the list
  • punctuation – will your list form part of your leading sentence, with semi-colons after each entry or will you treat each entry as its own sentence? Will this be a decision based on context or a blanket style over every list regardless of where the list appears?
  • capitalization – will you capitalize the first letter of every list regardless of context, or will you only capitalize when the lists form their own sentences?

Numbers

Numbers provide your readers with a significant amount of information – they tell them an amount or provide them with scale – and they appear in all manner of communications, from informal emails to legal contracts. In each case, numbers need special consideration in your style guide.

The first consideration for numbers is how they will be presented – written out in letters or in numerals – and when you will employ each. Generally, the standard is to write out numbers from zero to ten, and then present numbers 11 and higher in numerals. Regardless of how you choose to write your numbers, consistency is key, so that your readers know what to expect when reading numbers.

The second consideration for numbers is if the presentation of numbers changes when writing a regular document or a legal document. In a regular document, numbers only have to appear once and can follow your standard number rule. In a legal document, however, you have to consider if you will follow the convention of spelling out the numbers in words and then presenting the same number in numerals. For example, “The Vendor will provide eight hundred forty-three (843) widgets by the Delivery Date.” This allows every reviewer an extra chance to confirm the accuracy of the number and is an obvious way to catch any errors if the number has been updated in one instance, but not the other.

Serial Commas (“Oxford Comma”)

In editing circles, there is nothing more divisive than whether to use serial or Oxford commas. These are the commas that appear after the second-to-last item in a list of three or more items within a sentence. For example, a serial comma can be found after ‘apples’ in the below example: Sue went to the store for peaches, oranges, apples, and pears.

The argument for the serial comma is very straightforward: when drafting your documents, you want to be as clear as possible in your message. Unless you will be present for every reading of every email, solicitation document, or contract completed by the receiving party in order to provide clarity to what you have written, you want to ensure that your meaning cannot be misconstrued. Employing the serial comma assists with this, as it provides clear groupings to items in a list contained in a sentence.

For example, consider the below sentence without a serial comma:

Provide details regarding the phasing of the design, roll-out and build-out of the proposed locations.

When reading the above sentence, it’s not clear whether there are two phases or three. Are the phases:

  1. design; and
  2. roll-out and build-out?

Or, are they:

  1. design;
  2. roll-out; and
  3. build-out?

In a solicitation document, would the proponent have the same question, or would they also assume how many phases were required? If they assumed contrary to your intention, would you penalize them for it? And taking it one step further, if a judge were to read it, would he or she understand your intention?

With a serial comma, it is clear that there are three intended phases:

Provide details regarding the phasing of the design, roll-out, and build-out of the proposed locations.

If the argument is between decreasing commas or increasing clarity, we would recommend choosing increased clarity.

Capitalization

In your documents, what you capitalize is as important as what you don’t capitalize. Capitalization denotes that the word is a proper noun or, in legal documents, such as your solicitation documents, a defined term, which means it has a particular meaning for that particular document. When you capitalize a regular noun, you are telling your readers that it has specific importance beyond its standard definition. For example, in the following sentence, it looks like Vendor and Day have different meanings than their standard meanings:

The Vendor shall provide service on all Days, in all weather.

In a contract, you would assume that the Vendor is the particular supplier that the contract is with. In a solicitation document, this capitalization is confusing, as during the posting and evaluation stages in the procurement process there is no selected vendor, and therefore, there shouldn’t be any defined party as the Vendor.

Similarly, the intention of the above capitalized Day is not clear from the clause. If it is defined elsewhere in the document as something other than calendar days, the meaning of the word has now become confused. Your reader will have to remember that you have changed the meaning of a common word and will have to hold that additional meaning in their heads as they read. If you had defined ‘Days’ to mean business days, then simply writing business days in the clause would be clearer and less confusing than changing the standard definition of a common word.

Future Considerations

When establishing your style guide and deciding how your organization will communicate going forward, it’s important to remember the following:

When establishing your style guide and deciding how your organization will communicate, it’s important to remember the following:

  • How your organization communicates is as important as what you are communicating – consider the audience, the method of communication, and your intended message in order to draft an effective document.
  • A style guide is a living document and will evolve as global standards and language change over time – the rules you set now may eventually be altered, for the better, in the future. Be prepared to do a Style Guide refresh when necessary.
  • A style guide is just a guide – while you will try to be as prescriptive and all-encompassing in your style guide, know that there may be different scenarios that your style guide may or may not take into consideration that will require you to make adjustments to your rules based on context. Just ensure that this flexibility isn’t too flexible, otherwise your style guide won’t be worth the paper (or screen!) it’s written on.