8 tips to create better style guides

April 6, 2022 10:39 pm

What do we mean by style guide? To many organisations, a style guide is the set of rules and guidelines that describe how your brand organises its colours, logos, graphic flourishes and other design elements.

What I’m talking about is a set of guidelines that explains how you communicate to your audience in writing. Sometimes this is called ‘editorial guidelines’ or ‘tone of voice’, sometimes ‘written style guide’. They vary in length and detail – some are a page or two, some run to hundreds of pages. Often, brands don’t have one. But where they do exist, they are an invaluable tool to help content marketing writers talk to your customers in the way you’d like us to talk to them.

Put simply: they let us speak your language. So giving some thought to developing one is well worth your time.

Why is a style guide important?

As a brand champion or head of marketing, you’ll always want to have effective conversations with your customers and your prospects. That’s possible only if you communicate in a consistent and clear manner. This is especially important as you conduct conversations using multiple content assets.

A good indicator that an organisation doesn’t have a style guide, or that it doesn’t promote it, is that the website is a mishmash of different editorial styles. You often see % and per cent used interchangeably, or a mix of UK and US/international English. When your readers stumble across inconsistencies in your spelling, they’re at risk of being distracted from what your content is trying to communicate.

This isn’t just a concern for grammar pedants obsessed with greengrocers’ apostrophes. A consistent style shows an attention to detail that inspires confidence in customers and prospects who read your organisation’s content.

And it’s not just about consistency of spelling and grammar. A good style guide will inform all the people writing content for your organisation how to communicate your message using the same kind of language. Your style flows naturally from the guidance in the style guide that allows writers, both internal and external to the organisation, to tell your stories clearly and effectively.

How do you create a style guide?

So what do writers and editors look for when they open your style guide with a cup of coffee in hand? Here are a few pointers.

  1. The absolute basics: At the very least, tell us the foundations of your style. Whether you prefer UK or US/International English. Or whether you prefer contractions (such as “we’re” rather than “we are”). Knowing the basics offers writers and editors a comfort blanket when they start to put ‘pen’ to ‘paper’. You can build your style guide from this solid base over time.
  2. Examples: It’s invaluable if you can provide examples to show how you like something written. If you like something written in a particular way, say so. Being prescriptive is good. We can work with that. A glossary of words is helpful, too. Do you prefer en or em dashes? What’s your position on Oxford commas? Do you prefer “people” or “staff”, “clients” or “customers”?
  3. Things to avoid: Again, specifics are good. If you want us to avoid certain words or not mention the competition, let us know.
  4. Succinct and searchable: Your style guide is a tool, not a work of art in itself. It should help the writer creating your content quickly find the information needed. Make it easy for editors to scan the contents and find the section they need. Include clear chapters, or at least headings and subheadings that can be searched for. Always make it easy to help writers look up and find answers to whatever query they have in the moment. Use bullet points, short sentences – anything that makes it quick to absorb the information and refer to it later.
  5. Tone of voice: You want to sound ‘authoritative’? Who doesn’t? You want to sound ‘conversational’? That’s more helpful. Informal is OK, but in B2B we don’t get many requests to imitate Innocent Smoothies or Brewdog, as effective as they might be for talking to consumers. Your tone of voice lets writers share your brand’s personality through its written content. Perhaps you’ve done your research on your customers and you understand their pain points, what matters to them and how they want to be communicated with. Do you want to be formal, conversational, educational, conservative, inspirational?
  6. Example publication: Sometimes thinking about the tone of voice used by a certain publication helps. If you like the style of The Wall Street Journal or The Guardian, let us know and we can try and emulate.
  7. Your style guide should be a living document: Language evolves and so should a style guide. Some shudder at the use of the phrase ‘living document’, but it matters with style guides. New phrases, expressions and technologies enter the lexicon and become fashionable. Others simply become run of the mill and need to be avoided. As the style guide evolves, you should keep a record of what has changed. This helps writers already familiar with your style to keep abreast of changes. And for that to work, you need…
  8. A responsible owner: Find someone (or more than one person) to act as the brand or style guardian. This is a real treat for writers, as that person can also answer the questions about the style minutiae that writers trade in. Someone we can go to if we have a question is a rare but beautiful thing.

To writers working on your content, a good style guide is the gift that keeps on giving. We get a guide to help us write, you get consistent content that matches your brand’s personality.

If you feel daunted at creating a style guide from scratch, it’s OK to say you follow an existing one (e.g. The Guardian), then specify anything that is particular to your brand, such as how you write your name (caps/all lowercase, etc) Alternatively, you can talk to us about creating one – we’d love to help.

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