Top 10 Things to Include in Your Style Guide
Proofed has developed thousands of style guides for businesses all over the world, so our team knows what works and what doesn’t.
Style guides give content teams and editors the tools they need to meet your expectations. They are easy-to-follow, easy-to-understand documents that tell your editors what to do and what not to do. Choosing what to include in your style guide is – almost – half the battle. But there are some absolutely essential sections that might not cross your mind at first.
Some business owners and marketing managers find that they’re too close to the brand to create an effective style guide that shows off what makes the brand brilliant. That’s why leaving it to the experts is your best bet.
Table of Contents
1. Baseline Style Guide
Do you have a baseline style guide that you want editors to follow, such as CMOS, AP, or APA? If you do, that needs to be noted in your style guide.
Choosing an established style guide gives you a starting point to work from without you lifting a finger. Creating a style guide from scratch can be a lengthy process, so starting with a baseline style guide will save you lots of time.
Plus, using a known style guide as your foundation will make it much more likely that you’ll cover all the bases.
Even if you want your style guide to deviate from the baseline, identifying your preferred style is going to be helpful. For example, you might love the APA style guide and want your editors to follow it, but you might want your titles to be left-aligned instead of center-aligned. That’s fine! Just make a note of it.
#1 - A brand that presents itself consistently is said to have 33% higher revenue than one that doesn’t.
#2 - Review all of the major style guides to see which one best suits your needs.
#3 - Choosing a baseline style guide will save you hours of time.
2. Brand Voice
Your brand voice is how you show off your brand’s personality.
It’s what you say and how you say it, and it must be consistent throughout all of your external communication. If your tone changes, your brand won’t appear as trustworthy, and that will impact your bottom line.
Take some time to get to know your brand. What are your brand’s values? How do you want your brand to be perceived? When you scratch beneath the surface, what is your brand’s personality? When it comes to defining that, it can be helpful to think about human personality traits.
Some personality traits that could apply to your brand:
When you’ve decided what your brand’s values are and how they translate into your brand’s personality, you can think about how you want that personality to be portrayed.
To include your brand voice in your style guide, give specific examples of what does and doesn’t sound appropriate for your brand.
Did You Know?
77% of consumers prefer to buy from brands with values similar to their own.
Including dialect information is particularly important if your editors live in different regions or countries, or if your audience is area- specific.
Think about your audience or client base. How do they speak? A big part of customer-centricity is making sure your brand speaks the same language your customers do. It helps you build a rapport with them. Use your customers’ language to choose the dialect information for your style guide.
The dialect requirements you have will depend entirely on your audience, but you might wish to include things like:
- Local references
- Era-specific references
- Slang terms
You might have different requirements for different pieces of content, too. Some content could be aimed at people in the United States and some could be aimed at people in the United Kingdom. In that case, you will need to have some spellings and references changed accordingly.
Making all of this clear in your style guide will help your editors avoid confusion and will prevent the wrong content from going out to your audiences.
You might prefer to avoid area-specific dialect in your content because you want it to be more accessible. That’s fine, but make sure you state that explicitly in your style guide.
Formatting requirements are essential to include in any style guide, but they’re often overlooked by businesses.
When looking at your formatting preferences, consider the following:
- Font color
- Line spacing
- Font style
- Heading sizes
By setting formatting rules, your audience will recognize your brand at a glance.
Neglecting to include formatting details in your style guide will be confusing for editors.
While some elements of your brand’s style might be common sense to an editor, formatting is not. Editors won’t be able to fill in the blanks with formatting – they need to be explicitly told how documents should look. A bulleted list should work just fine, and you can include a few examples if you want to.
If you’re not sure what formatting details you’d like to include in your style guide, spend some time looking at how other brands format their content. When you see styles you like, it’s perfectly fine to take inspiration from them.
Having a signature color for your brand makes it much more recognizable.
Punctuation has an effect on your brand voice, so don’t neglect it. There isn’t just right or wrong when it comes to punctuation. The use of punctuation can be a stylistic choice, and your content team will need to know your preferences.
Do you know your stance on Oxford commas? Do you want your writers to include periods at the end of bullet points? Does the use of exclamation points fit with your brand? Is it OK for your writers and editors to use semicolons? What about parentheses?
Ask yourself these questions as a starting point. It’s a good idea to play around with different ideas, too. Try out sentences with varying uses of punctuation and read them out loud to see which one best captures your brand voice.
Even if you’re using a baseline guide, you might want to deviate from it when it comes to punctuation. Spend some time thinking about your preferences and outline them clearly in your style guide, even if it’s just in a bulleted list of dos and don’ts.
6. Blacklisted Terms
Every brand will have words, terms, and subjects that they simply don’t want to mention. At all. Ever. Include these blacklisted terms in your style guide.
Some brands stay away from discussing tricky topics. Others prefer to be vocal. Think about which camp your brand falls into and consider which topics you don’t want to weigh in on, and which words, phrases, and ideas you don’t want to see in your content.
For example, if you run a hotel that isn’t dog-friendly, you wouldn’t want any mention of dogs or dog-friendliness in your content as that would confuse your audience with mixed messaging.
Or you might want your brand to be accessible to everyone. In that case, you might wish to blacklist of-the-moment references and industry-specific jargon that can alienate some people.
The best way to present your blacklisted terms in a style guide is in a simple list format.
You don’t need to provide long-winded explanations – what you don’t want in your brand’s content is completely up to you.
When you neglect to include blacklisted terms in your style guide, you run the risk of damaging your brand’s reputation and wasting time. Either you or your editor will have to comb through your content to remove the words, terms, and subjects you don’t want to appear.
Did You Know?
64% of consumers want brands to be vocal on social and political issues.
It’s great to lay out the minutia of how to write as a brand, but the proof is in the pudding. Including content examples and other resource files will be quite helpful for your editors.
An expert editor will be able to understand and implement your brand’s tone and style by looking at examples.
The most effective way to do this is to provide edited and unedited versions of the same text with the changes clearly marked. That way, your editors can see what you do and don’t like.
When you give your editing team examples of content that you like, you help them avoid over-editing or under-editing your work. If you tell your team that you want your content to be upbeat and friendly but don’t provide examples, your team might make your content sound overly excited or too casual.
You don’t need to fill your style guide with pages and pages of examples, though. Including just a few impactful examples will go a long way.
#1 - Try to include an example in each section of your style guide.
#2 - Using too many examples can clutter the document and make it harder to read, so don’t overdo it.
#3 - Giving examples means that your style guide is less open to interpretation.
“Grammar is a piano I play by ear.”
– Joan Didion
Grammar might seem like a minor detail, but it isn’t. The grammar you use (and don’t use) impacts your brand’s tone of voice, so use it (or don’t use it) wisely.
For the most part, your brand’s specific grammar requirements should be consistent across the board in external content. Allowing gray areas or flouting the occasional rule is acceptable as long as it doesn’t cause chaos. Laying out how your brand uses grammar will clear up confusion for your editors.
You might want to consider whether your brand should use only the first or the second person, or whether it’s acceptable to change it up. You might want to consider the verb tenses your brand uses, the pronouns it uses, and how it handles bias-free language.
Keep in mind that there are many grammar “rules” out there that are totally acceptable to break once in a while as a stylistic choice. For example, you might want to start a sentence with and or but, you might be OK with your brand ending sentences with prepositions, and you might not mind the use of the occasional double negative.
Play around with these to see whether you’re happy with your brand breaking these rules from time to time.
9. Running Updates
Brands evolve over time, and that’s completely normal. It doesn’t mean you need a whole new style guide, but it does mean you need to make note of any changes to your style guide. This is known as a running updates list.
A good style guide will be easy to update. Keeping a running list of updates near the top of your style guide will make it a breeze for your editor to see any new changes at a glance.
The newest changes should be at the top of the list, pushing the older updates down. When an update is no longer relevant because a new update has made it redundant, remove it.
Not keeping a running updates list creates two challenges. The first is that your editors will have to read your style guide every time they work on a document, which isn’t an efficient use of their time. The second is that your editors may assume there haven’t been any changes and miss key updates.
With that in mind, a running updates list should be a priority for evolving style guides.
59% of people in the UK would not use a company that has obvious grammatical errors in its marketing materials.
10. Triage List
Having a triage list in your style guide can be quite helpful, especially if your style guide is long and complex. This is a list that will tell your content team and editors where they should focus their efforts, from most important to least important.
Your triage list should detail everything from your hard limits to things that are your preferences but not deal-breakers. For example, you might be adamant about using Oxford commas in all appropriate cases. Or you might not want your content to use the passive voice too often, but a few instances here and there are fine.
Making these guidelines clear to your editors will save them time and a lot of headaches. If you don’t have a triage list, your editors might spend too much time changing the passive voice to active when their time would be better spent adding in Oxford commas.
Your triage list doesn’t have to be in-depth, but it does need to be easy to read quickly.
#1 - Lay out your triage list in table format, with columns for hard rules, general preferences, and extra information.
#2 - You can color code your triage list with red, yellow, and green to make it easy to understand at a glance.
#3 - Include your triage list near the beginning of your style guide.
How you choose to represent your brand through your content is entirely up to you.
There’s no right or wrong. But it pays to have a single-source style guide to make sure your content is consistent.
Before you start writing your style guide, take some time to consider how you want your brand to be perceived, what its values are, and who your audience is. Once you have that information, you can begin.
You’ll save yourself a lot of time and headaches by choosing a baseline style guide (e.g., APA, CMOS, or AP) and changing it to fit your own requirements.
Nothing is too insignificant to put in your style guide. Dig deep and don’t be afraid to go into the minor details of grammar, punctuation, and formatting. But remember to include a triage list so your editors know which guidelines are the most important to focus on.
If you’re having a hard time figuring out what to include in your style guide, ask an expert. It can be tricky to write a style guide for your own brand because you may be too close to it to make objective decisions.