A style guide is one of the most valuable tools your editorial team can have at its disposal. It’s the North Star that leads individual writers towards a unified tone of voice across the company, providing clarity and direction. But what is it, exactly?
A style guide details the conventions an organization or team should follow in their writing. By using a bespoke style guide, companies can have confidence that their content conveys their unique brand voice and is cohesive across all written material—from marketing copy to annual reports.
How Will a Style Guide Help Your Team?
The need for a style guide stems from creativity and preference. If two writers are given the same brief, they’ll produce very different pieces of writing, both in terms of content and style. Whether they’re Oxford comma obsessive or like to scatter semicolons liberally through their work, they’ll apply their own individual stylistic ideals to copy, such as the use of punctuation and tone.
And while individuality in content is part of the creative process, it goes without saying that companies should maintain cohesion in their writing style to best represent their products and brand.
A study by Lucidpress and Demand Metric found that consistent brand representation increases revenue by an average of 23%. Additionally, 71% of participants in the study said that irregular use of branding causes confusion.
Most readers won’t consciously notice subtle variations in writing style. But inconsistencies—particularly in specific brand language and tone—may leave them with a head-scratching sense of uncertainty and ultimately erode their trust in the company.
The answer to this content conundrum is an editorial style guide that establishes the company’s standards and helps to ensure cohesion across all written work.
How to Create a Style Guide
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was a comprehensive style guide. Creating this vital tool takes time, so start with your key principles and the most important consistencies. Think of it as a living document: If you notice differences in style when reviewing your team’s content, iteratively add new rules.
A well-structured style guide will boost your writers’ working knowledge while cutting down on your editing time. To make sure yours works as hard as possible for your content team, these are the steps to follow.
1. Define Your Company’s Brand Voice
Let’s talk about tone. Clarifying your brand’s voice is a key part of establishing its identity and helps differentiate you from other businesses. It’s also a core part of articulating your company’s mission, values, and character to your customers.
Every writer on your team should use language that conveys the brand voice. This means setting the appropriate balance of formality and familiarity, as well as seriousness and humor.
To determine your tone of voice, consider the main attributes you want consumers to associate with your brand. Is it friendly and fun? Authoritative and reliable?
It’s also worth thinking about which characteristics you don’t want customers to equate with your company. For example, it’s unlikely you want the brand to be perceived as presumptuous, frivolous, or old-fashioned.
2. Decide Your Point of View and Grammatical Voice
As a next step in creating your style guide, set out the requirements for your business’ point of view. Essentially, this means clarifying whether your team should write in the first, second, or third person.
- First person: At Proofed, we’ll assemble a dedicated team of professional editors to strengthen your content.
- Second person: You can get long-term editing support and project-based proofreading from the Proofed for Business team.
- Third person: Proofed for Business offers fully managed editorial services.
Next, establish a preferred grammatical voice. Not to be confused with brand voice, the grammatical voice refers to the way verbs are formulated. The most common examples are the active voice and the passive voice:
- Active voice: Editors should carefully consider the grammatical voice.
- Passive voice: The grammatical voice should be carefully considered by editors.
Businesses usually favor the active voice because it sharpens writing and adds a sense of immediacy. However, there may be circumstances where the passive voice is more appropriate, such as in customer service communications.
The best style guides make note of these rules and exceptions.
3. Detail Editorial Preferences for Language and Style
The most effective style guides also provide as much information as possible about the company’s editorial preferences. Set your content team up for success by including these categories into your document:
For example, should your team refer to those who buy the company’s products or services as customers, clients, members, or something else?
Acronyms and abbreviations
Subtle variations can creep into abbreviations. Should initialisms be punctuated with periods? Which acronyms should be capitalized? You might also like to spell out any regularly used abbreviations and provide rules to follow for less common ones.
Dates and numbers
Pay attention to how you format dates and whether you spell out numbers or write them as digits.
It’s worth specifying the formatting and spelling of often-used words, including rules on capitalization. For ease, organize this part of your style guide alphabetically.
Accuracy is especially important here, not only for editorial consistency but also to help your business avoid potential lawsuits. For example, if the company’s written material includes trademarked terms (e.g., Coca-Cola®), they must always be spelled and formatted in line with the trademark holder’s requirements. If any branded terms are referred to regularly, add them to the style guide.
4. Stipulate General Formatting Conventions
Save yourself and your writing team a lot of back and forth by outlining the company’s formatting conventions in the style guide. There is a host of factors to address under this umbrella, including:
- Preferred style for headings
- Whether to use bold print or italics for emphasis
- Choice of font, including size
- When to use single or double quotation marks
- How to format links
- The style of numbered and bulleted lists
In our experience managing more than 750 content professionals, the more formatting details you give writers at the outset, the more closely they’ll adhere to formatting expectations. The result? Far fewer revisions later on.
5. Provide Specific Guidelines for Different Types of Communication
Customers want to feel like they’re consistently engaging with the same company, whether they’re reading a brochure, a product description, or a case study. However, that’s not to say your team will use an identical tone across every single touchpoint.
While all writing should express the company’s values by adhering to the brand voice, your team can dial the tone up or down depending on the channel. For example, you might adopt a playful attitude for a social media campaign and a more serious persona when responding to complaints.
The trick, however, is not to flex the tone too far. Outline any types of variations in the style guide, along with examples, so your content team can stay on the same page.
How to Introduce and Implement an Editorial Style Guide
Let’s go through five practical tips for setting up your style guide and spreading it throughout your organization.
- Choose which platform to use. Preferably, you’ll save the style guide online, perhaps on software like Notion or Google Drive, to save you from needing to reshare it every time it’s updated.
- Lay out your style guide logically. Greenpeace organizes theirs by splitting up relevant sections with easily navigable headlines.
- Once your document is ready to be presented to your content team, introduce it in a positive and affirming way. Frame it as a tool to help writers authentically represent the company and produce their best work without multiple redrafts.
- Give your team adequate time to comb through the style guide, ask questions, and provide feedback. You could also dedicate a day to introducing it and training staff on its use.
- Make the style guide available to every person communicating on behalf of the business. This includes staff or freelance contractors engaged in producing website content and marketing campaigns, as well as anyone who sends newsletters, emails, or memos on the company’s behalf.
How Long Is the Perfect Style Guide?
When it comes to length, your style guide doesn’t need to rival the Complete Works of Shakespeare. Instead of covering every single grammatical rule, cherry-pick the points that are most applicable to your team and refer to a backup for anything else. Many companies will reference The Chicago Manual of Style or Associated Press Stylebook for any clarifications. See how Princeton University does this in practice.
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