7 Tips for Detecting Business Editorial Style

by Beth McAuley

Published at 2016-09-15

Have you ever sat down to write a business article for a journal or a magazine and wondered what the editorial style of the publication was? Perhaps the website doesn't offer a detailed style guide and you know how important it is to punctuate properly or to capitalize key words. In this blog, I describe my detective-like approach to identifying the editorial style of a business magazine or journal. As we know, a well-polished piece will catch the eye of the editor and help your work find its way into the magazine’s published pages.


For this detective exercise, I read the September 2016 issue of the Harvard Business Review and identified the following styles used in the magazine’s content. These styles are grouped under seven questions that helped to guide the search. You can use these tips to help you identify the style of the magazine or journal you are writing for, and then list them on your style sheet. You can refer to this style sheet each time you write, and you can modify it to suit the particular style of other magazines and journals. Try downloading our sample style sheet.  


Which Spelling: American or Canadian?

This one is easy, given it is the HBR: American spelling is used. But it is not always a given. Some Canadian businesses use American spellings. So to be on the safe side, check for key words: behavior (American) or behaviour (Canadian); endeavor (American) or endeavour (Canadian); center (American) or centre (Canadian); labor (American) or labour (Canadian).


Since HBR uses American spelling, you will refer to Merriam-Webster’s as the dictionary of choice.


Spelling of Key Words, Business Terms, and Acronyms

Key words, business terms, and acronyms will jump out at you: make a list of these. For example, HBR uses U.S. but UK. It also uses policy maker (as two words), start-ups (as a noun), fulfill (note the double “lls”), e-mail (use the hyphen), and toward (not towards).


Once you have some key words you can determine how other words will be spelled. If HBR uses fulfill, you know others forms of the verb will be fulfilled, fulfilling, fulfillment.


I also took note of these common acronyms and business terms:

ATM fees

B2B customers



I&A (insights and analytics)


PA (Pacific-Asian)



Remember, if you are introducing a new term that has an acronym you will use later in the article, spell out the term in full when first used with the acronym following: “Our insight and analytics (I&A) leaders will conduct 350 business surveys this year.”


How Is Punctuation Used?

Believe it or not, readers’ eyes pick up inconsistencies in punctuation. So it is important that you follow the style in use and apply it evenly throughout your article. Here are three key styles to note.


The comma: Many business publications apply the non-serial comma usage, but HBR opts for the serial comma. A short example: “Such as Apple, Samsung, and Amazon.” A long example: “Then came the Pony Express, the telegraph, the pneumatic post, the telephone, the internet, e-mail, Twitter, and other social media sites.”


The dashes: Dashes are used in different ways. And they are different from hyphens. A hyphen is used in a compound adjective, for example, as in “a forward-looking agenda.” The other two dashes that come into play are the em dash and the en dash. The en dash is used in number ranges: 2015–2016, see pages 25–32 for this information. The em dash is used for to set off information in a sentence: “There are four kinds of needs—functional, emotional, life changing, and social impact—that increase customer loyalty.”


The colon: HBR style is to capitalize the first word after a colon. For example, “But that’s the easy part: Pricing usually consists of managing a relatively small set of numbers.”


The ellipses: This punctuation indicates an omission in your sentence, usually used with quotations. HBR closes spaces around the ellipses. For example: As Bill Ackman has put it, “Active oversight…is essential to the country’s long-term business performance.”


The period with parenthetical comments: You will look extremely polished if you know to include the period inside the closing parenthesis. In this example, the complete sentence is within the parentheses plus the period is tucked inside the closing quotation mark:  (Some critics refer to the passive camp as “lazy investors.”)



What about Compound Adjectives?

These are tricky and building a list of compound adjectives is a timesaver for writers and editors. Here is a short list from HBR:


brick-and-mortar business

buyer-seller transactions

country-by-country basis

forward-looking orientation

hit-or-miss endeavor

life-changing element

lower-grade products

non-U.S. companies

one-on-one interview

TED-style talks


How Are Numbers Used?

How numbers are used can be tricky too. If there are numbers in your article, you want to be consistent in how you express them.


Most business styles, including HBR, spell out numbers from zero to nine, and use digits at 10. For example: “There were nine jobs completed, but 10 more were expected.” It is acceptable to spell out nine then use 10.


Expression of dollars is also important to note: $5.2 billion, $1, $8,000, 2 cents


Other number styles:


24/7 workplace

38 years in business


21st (note that “st” is not superscript)

18-year-olds (noun)

10,000 U.S. consumers

 50% of respondents

 $235 million in revenue



How Are Possessives Used?

This is a good one, and the more samples you can find and list, the more confident you’ll be in using possessives. The most common error, of course, is the mistake made between it’s (for it is) and the possessive form its: The company has its annual convention in May; it’s an extravagant affair.


Here are a few other examples from HBR:

The consumer’s needs (singular) / The consumers’ needs (plural)

Our employees’ capabilities (plural) / The employee’s capabilities (singular)

The organizations’ innovative applications (plural) / The organization’s innovative application (singular)


How Are Titles Treated?

These should be easy to spot and most business publications follow the general style of italicizing titles.

For example: the New York Times, U.S. News & World Report, U.S.A. Today, Harvard Business Review.


Book titles are also italicized, as are titles of films and titles of TV series such as ABC News.



Now You Are Ready to Create Your Style Sheet

Make a list with the headings above and create your style sheet.


Style Sheet for Harvard Business Review

September 2016


American spelling, Merriam-Webster’s





Word Spellings


Be sure to explore the HBR website at for more tips and suggestions.


Good luck with your business writing. Remember to review your work and spot your style inconsistencies at each draft.



In my next blog, my sleuthing takes me through the pages of Rotman Management Magazine for a Canadian take on business style.