The Elements of a Style Guide
If your company publishes content, you probably need a style guide. It might sound like a huge undertaking, but style guides don’t have to be exhaustive. In fact, the exhaustive ones are usually counterproductive because nobody bothers reading them.
Style guides don’t magically turn people into good writers, but they do get everyone on the same page and help keep your company’s content consistent. And consistency is a must: if you have a lot of people communicating on behalf of your organization, it all needs to sound like it came from the same place.
When done well, style guides save editors and publishers time. They help you make quick fixes and decisions, so you don’t have to debate rules or look up past examples. Eventually, you’ll know your style guide front to back without having to pull it up every time someone has a question.
Style guides also make you think more deeply about your company’s communications and personality. In the process of writing the guide, you’ll answer questions you didn’t know you had and smooth out inconsistencies you may not have noticed before.
One of my favorite things about style guides is a side effect: They make people feel more comfortable writing. If people who don’t consider themselves writers create content for your company, it’s important to give them the tools they need to write with confidence. A style guide is a great foundation for that.
Depending on your organization, your style guide might include grammar and web standards, copy patterns, voice and tone guidelines, content types with examples, a word list (and a blacklist), and brand basics. The length and tone will depend on your organization’s needs: What kind of content do you publish? How many people write for your company? What is their experience level? Who is editing the content?
Define Your Audience
Before you start working on a style guide, you need to figure out who’s reading it. Is the guide for publishers? Editors? Bloggers? Subject-matter experts who aren’t technically writers? Do these people work in-house, or are they freelancers?
Answering questions about your style guide’s readers will help you adjust your message and tone according to your audience’s level of expertise. It will also give you a better idea of how many technical details you should include. If the people reading the style guide are contracting for your company but don’t actually work there, then they’re going to need more basic info about the company itself. They might also want lots of content examples. If the guide is for a small group of professional editors, then you can leave out some of the grammar basics and focus more on specific style points.
Start with Something
There are plenty of existing style guides you can use as a foundation. No need to rewrite the book. I’ve wasted a lot of time rewriting style guides for MailChimp and other companies, and trust me: for most businesses, it’s not worth it. Choose a style guide as a base—one you can tweak with exceptions, additions, and items that are specific to your company.
I recommend the The Yahoo! Style Guide. It was written with digital content in mind, so it’s modern and relevant for most businesses. Unfortunately, it’s not available online. We use this guide at MailChimp, and we keep a handful of hard copies around the office.
After selecting a style guide to defer to, go through every single page and record any exceptions and additions that you want to include in your company’s style guide. If you start with a web-focused guide, it will already include standards for headers, HTML basics, and more. If you go with a more academic one, then you should add your own web and formatting standards.
Think long and hard about the conventions your company uses most often, and make sure they’re well represented in your style guide. If you publish a lot of dates and times on your website, then consider whether or not your default style guide’s standards work for you. Consider things like whether or not you spell out numbers, whether you spell out “percent” or use the symbol, and how you abbreviate state names.
You might end up simplifying some of your default style guide’s rules in order to make your standards easier for writers and subject-matter experts to remember. In some cases, you’ll have to pick one rule where the book gives you options. For example, The Yahoo! Style Guide says you can either spell out the word “percent” or use the symbol. You should pick one, and say so in your style guide (the symbol saves space, but the word looks nicer … decisions, decisions).
You’ll also want to add relevant information that’s specific to your company. For us, that includes noting that both the “M” and “C” in “MailChimp” are capitalized. A university might include the proper names of departments or schools. A government agency might add style points about divisions, titles, and programs. You might include details on how to handle image credits and cite sources. Your extras will depend on your organization and the type of content you publish.
Some companies supplement their style guide with a word bank. Ours includes words that people might have style questions about (e-commerce, homepage, when to use log in vs. login). A list of words not to use can come in handy, too. The University of Texas includes a list of “pet peeves” and replacements, most of which teach writers to simplify (“similar to” vs. “like”).
Gov.UK’s fantastic style guide also includes a list of unacceptable words. The guide explains the importance of writing in plain English, and most of the words on the list are buzzwords and jargon, like “impact” as a verb, “leverage,” and “streamline.”
Voice and Tone
Include voice and tone details to help writers understand the company’s perspective and sense of humor. This might include a mission statement, company values, or content examples. Describe your brand as if you were describing a person.
Consider creating a “this but not that” list to describe your brand’s personality. Simply make a list of adjectives that describe your company, and then qualify each one. These lists help writers understand exactly where the company falls on the personality map. Here’s MailChimp’s list:
- Fun but not childish
- Clever but not silly
- Confident but not cocky
- Smart but not stodgy
- Cool but not alienating
- Informal but not sloppy
- Helpful but not overbearing
- Expert but not bossy
- Weird but not inappropriate
At MailChimp, we have a separate voice and tone guide that’s required reading for all staff, but we also include voice and tone in our traditional style guide. The style guide is available to employees who are interested.
Macmillan Cancer Support’s style guide includes a section called “Putting people at the heart of our work.” It explains the way the company communicates with its readers and reminds writers to be positive, realistic, and honest when addressing cancer. Striking the right tone is especially important for a nonprofit like Macmillan, and they provide writers with plenty of support and tools to prepare them for difficult writing assignments.
Be as descriptive as possible, and use specific examples to help people understand what you’re going for. If you say your company’s voice is “funny” or “casual,” that can mean different things to different people. Examples provide more clarity. You might even take it a step further by using “we would say” and “we wouldn’t say” examples. Something like this:
- We wouldn’t say: Provide your contact information in order to receive complimentary whitepapers.
- We would say: Come and get your free guides!
Outline Content Types and Include Examples
Even though you know the spectrum and scale of your company’s content, your contributors probably don’t. If you publish different types of content, make a list of each one and explain its purpose. If your audiences vary based on the content type, then use this space to describe the different reader types. This will help writers adjust their tone and reading level based on the situation.
Separating content types can come in handy when you need to explain specific content types to writers, but you don’t want to give them more information than they need. For example, we have a section about writing for MailChimp’s blog in our style guide, so if someone’s working on a blog post for the first time, I can link people directly to that part of our style guide.
Companies that have different publishing processes for different content types can provide quick tutorials or procedural overviews, or link to them in the style guide. For example, if you use WordPress for your blog, you could include instructions and screenshots from WordPress Admin.
Keep it Alive
A style guide should not be an InDesign file converted to a PDF that sits on one person’s desktop. I can say that with authority because MailChimp’s old style guide was an InDesign file converted to a PDF that sat on my desktop. As a result, it was low on my priority list and out of everyone else’s reach. Whether your style guide is a wiki, a Google doc, or a web page, make it easy to update and access.
Last week, I was editing a blog post and couldn’t remember if we hyphenate “coworker” or not. I checked our style guide, and it wasn’t there. Since our style guide is a living web document, I made the change on the spot so we all know what to do going forward (I went with no hyphen, for the record). Depending on your editorial process, you could regularly update the style guide or put it on the calendar to update every quarter or so.
Your style guide should also be easy for people in the office to access. Send out a link, so writers are viewing the most updated version whenever they visit. Make it searchable and divide it into logical sections, so writers don’t have to dig around for the information they need. And if you make the style guide accessible to everyone, those additional sets of eyes will help keep you accountable for regular updates. Writers may even suggest updates or notice out of date information.
Teach and Train
Link to additional resources, like your company’s editorial calendar and brand assets, instead of loading down your style guide with all of that content.
And most importantly, own your style guide. Take care of it. Don’t just send out a link in a company-wide email and call it a day. Use your style guide as a resource and a starting point for writers, but consider yourself a teacher when it comes to the company’s style. Make yourself available to sit down with new writers and explain your company’s style, and cite the style guide in your edits.
Remember, your style guide isn’t going to make your content great. It’s there to create consistency, improve communication, save time, and support great content.
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