21 Oct

How a Style Guide Helped Catch a Killer

By Libby Esterle, Senior Account Executive

As a communications and marketing professional, I know that each person has their own unique writing style that is reflected in their voice and tone. I, for instance, tend to be a bit more straightforward and matter of fact when I write, whereas some of my other agency colleagues are gifted with a more creative style. Fortunately, we all benefit and learn from one another and our collective writing styles have adapted and grown over the years thanks to our collaboration. This is also key when several of us are writing content at the same time for the same client—we work together to establish a similar voice and tone so all of the content we are producing is consistent across the board.

So, when I learned that language, writing-related clues and personal writing style helped track down a killer, I was fascinated to say the least. The Discovery Channel’s miniseries, Manhunt: Unabomber (now streaming on Netflix) recounts how FBI criminal profiler James R. Fitzgerald, who began working the case in 1995, began to intently focus on the Unabomber’s letters and 35,000-word manifesto that was sent to The New York Times and The Washington Post.

What I found the most interesting is how Ted Kaczynski’s personal writing style played crucial part in his capture. Turns out, Kaczynski’s writing style was heavily influenced by an outdated and rather odd version of The Chicago Tribune’s in-house style guide. From 1949 until his death in 1954, publisher Robert McCormick made his editors follow a fringe, simplified spelling movement that used uncommon, but not incorrect, spellings of words such as: license, wilfuly, skilful, analyse and instalment. The same spellings found in Kaczynski’s letters and manifesto.

According to Fitzgerald himself, the Unabomber’s writings were a “pivotal factor” in helping pinpoint his age and geographic origin and fit with the suspect profile Fitzgerald created.

While a peculiar writing style is one part of this bigger case, I don’t want to spoil the miniseries for those of you who might find it as interesting as I did. And if you DO watch, please come back and let me know what you thought of it.