Why You Need a Style Guide (and How to Make One)
Style – do you have it? I don’t mean in the fashion sense, though I’m interested in that, too. But specifically, does your organization have a style guide? And do you use it?
Ages ago, when I worked in magazine publishing, one of my very first tasks was to create a style guide for the publication. This was not something thrown at me as a new hire; rather, it was a self-initiated project. I walked in to the office and quickly realized there was nothing to consult when faced with a question on hyphenation, word choice, or capitalization. I set out to fix that quickly.
Why do this to myself? Because without it, we wouldn’t look professional. Imagine you’re reading a magazine (on paper or online) and half the titles of the articles Are Capitalized Like This and the other half Are capitalized like this. See what I mean? You’d be wondering if there was some rhyme or reason for the difference, or if the publisher was just unprofessional.
What is a style guide?
A style guide is a document that defines, references, and guides the style of your company. Think of it is as the written brand. You may already have a stylebook that showcases your company colors, logos, and how your various marques and images are used – minimal sizes, clearances, etc. The style guide – for your writers – is its complement.
Style guides will be consulted mostly by people in marketing and communication roles. But anyone who sends any communication – salesmen sending emails included – should consult it.
What goes in a style guide?
The style guide is the roadmap to your communication style. Commonly, a style guide includes everything from the way you capitalize your company and product names to industry-used terminology to your stance on whether to use an Oxford comma. Other considerations: whether you spell numbers or use numerals, whether to include periods after each letter in an acronym, and if it’s ok to use contractions. You might want your writers to use ok, or OK, or okay; the style guide will let them know which one to use.
It may also include a note on voice, tone, and personality of your company – so that your writers know whether it’s ok to make plays on words, or if they must be serious and straight. Let them know if it’s ok to use slang, and if there are prohibited words or brand names.
The guide doesn’t have to be a tome. Sure, it can be lengthy and exhaustive – covering any and all scenarios. But it can also be a single page that outlines the key points.
So long as you have some kind of documentation, you’re well on your way.
Why you need it
I mentioned this a bit at the start, but there are a few reasons why you need a guide.
Consistency is the main one. You want all the copy that comes out of your office to reinforce your brand in a specific, thought-out way. Inconsistencies distract the reader, and make your company look a bit careless.
A style guide also helps you be professional – to ensure every word you use is thoughtful, considered, and properly punctuated. And it makes life easier for your writers.
Who needs a style guide?
Creating a style guide is not just a luxury of giant corporate businesses. Nor is it a requirement of just forming start-ups. It’s something that businesses of all sizes should take the time to think about and create. The guide will be used in-house, and should also be shared with freelance contributors (your copyeditors will thank you).
Creating a style guide
If you don’t have a style guide, that’s cool. It’s why we are talking about it. You can start now.
And lest you think this will take you ages, it doesn’t have to. You don’t have to materialize this out of thin air. You can lean on some tried and true resources.
First, appoint a person or team to own the guide. This is likely someone in the marketing or communications team.
Next, consider what is your style. Are you casual or corporate? Colloquial or buttoned-up? This is where you can wax poetic a bit – getting back to your company personality and mission statement and roots. You also want to consider your clientele, and how they like to be talked to.
Now, start to get granular. Consider if you gravitate toward one school of thought – for example, how do you feel about semicolons? Sentences that start with “and”? Fragments?
You can look to the experts – like the Associated Press (AP) handbook that newspapers lean on, or the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) – at this stage, to help you set your framework. In fact, in a resourcing pinch, you can point your staff to one of those websites and call it good. (Pick one or the other, though. AP and Chicago are different.)
The next step is to create a shortlist of industry- and company-specific words. Things that come up a lot in your communications. That may include jargon, abbreviations, and industry-specific phrasings that you need to use and punctuate properly.
From there, fill in additional elements that feel appropriate for your company. For example, you may include a glossary of any and every term possibly cited in your communications. You might add in rules on citations, ethics in reporting, and other best practices. Or, you may stick to the basics and keep it simple and short.
How to enforce your style
Someone needs to be the police officer to verify that your team is adhering to this style guide. I won’t lie; this is not the most fun part of the job. But if your goal is consistency in your communications, it is necessary. It’s important that every member of your team – anyone who will be writing or communicating – know your brand’s voice and stick to it.
When you first roll out the new guide (or an update), host an in-house training to ensure everyone is aware of the style rules. All new hires should read the guide. For specific team members who’ll use this a lot (often those in communications roles) you may want to run a pop quiz.
Your copyeditors should keep a copy of the guide nearby and open – and check all content against it.
Finally, spot check (spot-check, spotcheck … see how many choices there are to make?) your copy periodically and nudge repeat offenders. Yes, that may mean an awkward conversation with your CEO or new intern. I’ve found that disregard for the style guide does not discriminate among the rankings.
A note on design
Not all style guides include notes on design. Many are text-heavy, chock-full of grammar dos and don’ts and spellings. But if you want to create a comprehensive guide – something your writers and illustrators alike can lean on – consider expanding your guide to include notes on designs, company-colors, font families, and logo usage.
Where to store your style guide
In the beginning of my career, print was still a thing – actually, the thing. That meant we would create these style guides, print and bind a few copies, and stash them on a common resources shelf for staff members to consult as needed. It meant they hung around for a while and got outdated (more on that in a sec.).
Today, you can create these documents and store them on shared sites like your company’s intranet or wiki page. And update them easily, regularly. (Do date your updates.)
How often should you update the style guide?
A style guide is a living document that can and should be updated. How often? Part of me wants to tell you to constantly update and revise it. But that will make you and your staff crazy.
To maintain sanity, consider a deep cleaning annually with periodic updates every six months. You annual checkup may or may not be a major overhaul; sometimes you just reconfirm earlier choices. This allows for a bit of breathing room to let people process any changes and get used to them without endlessly revising the rules.
Style guide examples
I learn a lot by example, so I’ll close by sharing some of the best. These examples may inspire you for what to include (or not) in your own guidance:
- The Economist – I’m particularly fond of the introductory text here. It sets the stage of what is coming – outlining overarching style principles that the publication adheres to. Following that is an alphabetical glossary of terms.
- The Elements of Style – It took me until nearly the end of this post to mention this Strunk and White classic, but I did not forget. William Strunk wrote it in 1918 and EB White revised and updated it in 1959. This book, used by legions of journalism and English majors, book authors, magazine scribes, and web copywriters, is perhaps the grandfather of style guides.
- The New York Times has its own set of rules, such as the practice of pairing courtesy titles with surnames (example: Mr. O’Neal). At times, it may feel antiquated, but it is decidedly their style. You know a Times article when you read one.
Note that not all style guides are, well, stylish. It’s more important to dictate the rules and keep them in a text file than it is to make the guide beautiful. But, if you have the time and resources, you can make your style guide something people actually want to pore over. Here are some examples of beautiful guides that marry words and design.