I firmly believe that every company, regardless of size, should have a style guide. This may sound like an extra layer of work that small businesses really don’t need to deal with at “this stage,” but I disagree.
It’s better to establish a style guide now, while you’re creating your voice and brand. If you wait until you’re well-known, you’ll have so many different practices in place, it might be hard to agree on a set of guidelines that everyone can follow.
So the first question you may have is…
What is a Style Guide?
A style guide is a document that sets the writing standards for everyone in your organization. It covers everything from the tone and voice of the company’s writing style to formatting and hex codes for the company’s chosen brand colors.
Please note: There is a difference between a content style guide and a design style guide. A content style guide refers specifically to anything written to promote the company. A design style guide refers to logos, brand color pallets, typography, icon sets, etc.
There are places that content and design style guides intersect, like pallet colors, formatting and whether your company uses a ™or ® in its logo or next to the company’s name in all marketing collateral.
Because I am a copywriter, I am talking about a content style guide in this article.
What Does a Style Guide Do?
A style guide acts as a reference point. New writers should review it and everyone should have a copy or a link handy. That way if they can’t remember whether the company uses the Oxford comma, they have somewhere to look.
A style guide also:
- Keeps your company’s tone, voice and messaging consistent across all platforms.
- Helps maintain your company’s brand identity.
- Shows quality and professionalism.
- Helps you write more effective content.
Why Do You Need a Style Guide?
Aside from the reasons above…
It puts your audience first
Let’s face it, everything you do in your marketing should be about communicating effectively with your audience. That includes your style guide. You should be shaping your style guide around what your audience wants from you and your products, as well as the problems you’re solving for them.
Your style guide will document the language and tone you use, your overall messaging and how and where you communicate with your audience.
It establishes your company’s voice
Every writer has their own “voice” and that will come across in your marketing. But having a style guide will give all of your writers a common voice to write in. Think of a choir. Every singer has his or her own unique sound, but when they sing together and listen to each other, you hear one overarching “voice” that carries through the whole piece.
Your audience will get used to hearing your company’s “voice” so you want to establish that early on. It will breed familiarity with your audience and consistency within your marketing.
It makes it easier on you and your employees
If everyone is held to the same standards, there will be less conflict over which way something should be written or whose concept of the “company voice” is right. It’s easy to update if company standards change.
It also acts as the “source of truth” whenever anyone has a question about how something should be written, or asks “why do we do it that way?” A good style guide can settle a lot of arguments.
Your writers will thank you. Your editors will thank you. Your entire marketing department will thank you. And most importantly, your audience will appreciate it, even though they don’t know it exists.
What Goes into a Style Guide?
Some of that will depend on your needs. I’ve seen style guides that are one page long and give basic guidelines. I’ve seen others, like MailChimp’s style guide, which is a mini-website. (Check it out, it’s really well done.)
Every style guide should contain:
Your chosen style manual
Most major media outlets use either the Chicago Manual of Style or the AP Stylebook. (There are arguments on which is better, I won’t go into any of that here.) Many companies adopt one of these style manuals as the basis for their own style guides. It gives them something to start with in terms of grammar and spelling. You can get an online subscription to both of these.
Your chosen dictionary
Why should you choose a dictionary? Because people have preferences. If you prefer the Merriam-Webster but one of your writers prefers the Oxford English Dictionary, you may have inconsistencies in your spelling. So choose one and make that the permanent reference point.
Voice and tone
I always ask my clients about their company voice. It helps me get a better feel for how they want to be represented. Here are some of the questions I typically ask:
Is your company:
- Laid back,
- Funny and cute
- Business like
Do you have a particular person you want to sound like? (Your CEO, a celebrity, a politician?)
Do you want me to write in:
- The first person (I, me, I’m)?
- The second person (you, yours)?
- The third person (the company is, the company does)?
Would you prefer I write in an active or a passive voice? (Personally, I find this matters a lot in how your audience perceives you. I always prefer active, but I’ve written for companies that use the passive.)
Does your company use a lot of jargon? If so, does your audience understand that jargon or will I need to clarify it?
Thinking about these things can unify your writers into one company voice pretty easily.
This section will deal with things specific to your company like:
- How do you spell your company’s name? A lot of companies are combining two words into one these days, so this matters more than you’d think. MailChimp, FindLaw and SunEdison are all good examples.
- Product names and how to spell them: Similar to company names, a lot of products have two words combined into one. Some companies use unique or clever spellings of common words for their product names.
- Trademarks, Registered marks and Copyright marks: If your company or product names have been registered, you’ll want to use the ®. If they’ve been trademarked, you’ll want to use the ™ and so on. Also, some companies require that you use these symbols with every single use of the company or product name. Some only use it once per page. Establish that in your style guide so no one is confused.
Commonly troublesome words
This is where you decide whether you want to use Ebook, eBook, ebook or e-book. Do you capitalize Internet or not? (Editor’s note: Since I published this post, the AP Stylebook has changed its practice of capitalizing Internet from upper case to lower case.) Is it ecommerce or e-commerce? Go through all of the terms you use regularly and settle on one spelling.
This is also where you establish your company’s jargon. Some industries have more than one term for the same item or issue. Choose one and stick with it. Everyone will be happier.
Grammar and punctuation
To Oxford comma or not to Oxford comma? That is the question. If you choose a media style guide, this may be answered for you. If you don’t, you’ll need to answer this question.
What do you capitalize? Product names? Employee titles? Do Your Headlines Use Capitals At The Start Of Each Word? Or do You Only Capitalize the Standard Words?
Do you use abbreviations? If so, what abbreviations do you use? Do you write out the name or phrase that you’re abbreviating once somewhere on the page, then put the abbreviation in parenthesis next to it, like this: Search engine optimization (SEO)? After that, do you only use the abbreviation? Your writers will want to know.
Your marketing department (or your copywriter) should create fully-fledged audience personas for their own purposes. You should have the basics listed in your style guide for everyone to refer to so they have someone in mind when they write.
These can include:
- Your target audience or archetype.
- Persona name.
- Where they see your message (social media, print media, radio, TV, etc.).
- Their problems and pain points.
- The types of solutions they may be looking for.
- How your products solve their problems.
This is where your content and design style guides will overlap. In many cases, your writers need to know some of your design standards. Such as:
- Hex codes for approved colors, especially if your writers will create buttons for blog posts or landing pages.
- Approved fonts.
- Do images get captions?
- Image placement.
- Image width and height.
- Can text wrap around images?
- When and where should writers use bold, italics or underlining?
- Do you use specific bullet shapes? If not, does it matter what the writers use?
- Formatting for numbered lists.
- Formatting for attributions and references.
Approved and unapproved content
Your writers will need to research. Where can they go? What types of sites can they use? For example, one content company I worked for insisted that we couldn’t use information from other content companies. They preferred we used professional and scientific studies whenever possible. They encouraged us to use sites with endings like .edu and .gov.
Some other examples of approved content sites might be:
- Industry guides,
- Market research sources,
Sites you may want them to stay away from can include:
- “Clickbait” sites
- Taboo competitors
- Unreliable sources within your industry
- Controversial authors, opinions or sources
Examples of right and wrong
If there is any confusion about how to write something in any section, show a specific example.
Our company name is FindLaw.
Please do not use Find Law, find law, Findlaw or any other variation.
How Do You Write a Style Guide?
Get input from your regular writers. (Or from the freelance copywriter you hired.) They’ll have established patterns and opinions on how things should be done. And people are more likely to follow your standards if they have a say in how they’re created.
Keep it simple. I know I listed a lot of information you should use here, but once you answer a lot of these questions, you’ll be able to distill it all down fairly easily. 4 pages is a good length.
Adjust your style guide as your company grows. This is a living document. Update it whenever changes are made so you’re always referring to the “source of truth.”
To make it easy for you, I’ve created a basic Company Style Guide template for you to follow. Just fill in the sections and you’ll be good to go.
Does Your Company Have a Style Guide?
How do you use it? If not, why? Tell me about it in the comments.