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Style Guides - What are they? Why do you need them?

Do you create content on a regular basis?

Is your content easily recognisable?

All businesses create some type of content - social media posts and lead magnets, advertising collateral and eBooks, web content and blogs or policy documents and operating procedures.

Businesses produce written content for many different reasons, for example, to inform, educate, advertise or standardise aspects of their business. But one thing they have in common, is that savvy business owners realise the importance of staying ‘on brand’ so that their company identity is easily recognisable.

That’s where a style guide can be a useful tool for content creators.

What is a style guide?

A style guide is a document outlining your company’s style for writing and editing documents. It establishes a set of conventions that everyone in the business can follow, and removes the doubts and questions your content creators have when putting together a document.

It ensures clarity and consistency across all your content, not just client-facing copy. Internal documents also benefit when information is presented in a systematic and structured manner.

Style guides vary in size and content and the key is to have a guide that meets your needs according to the size and type of business you run.

Some of the most commonly used style guides are:

· The Chicago Manual of Style

· The European Union Style Guide

· The Economist Style Guide

· The New Oxford Style Manual

Additionally, many organisations, publications and journals will publish guidelines that are essentially style guide for contributors to follow when submitting written content for publication.

But really there’s nothing stopping you from creating a style guide that’s unique to your business and communication style.

A style guide can help you write consistently branded content that's easy to read and understand.
Style guides come in all sizes

Why is a style guide important?

A style guide compliments an organisation’s tone of voice and brand guidelines to make sure your brand is effectively communicated to your readership. This is especially important when different individuals contribute to the creation of documents across the business.

Different writers will naturally have their own writing style and preferences.

Some writers love a bulleted list, others don’t. Different content creators have different educational backgrounds and have varying opinions about things like Oxford commas, split infinitives or when to capitalise headings.

In most cases, how these aspects of language appear in a document comes down to personal opinion and often there's no right or wrong answer.

But the final document shouldn’t read like a patchwork of different documents sewn together by different people. And if you have a suite of similar documents they should all reflect the same writing style and tone of voice.

So, a style guide can help writers follow the same writing conventions and ultimately reduce the time spent editing, reviewing and translating your content.

This contributes to consistently written, error-free communication that is clearly identifiable as part of your brand identity.

While this might not seem important to some people, it might be important to your clients. And more importantly, it tells them something about your company and its attitude.

A company can bang on about how they care for every client or how they pay attention to every detail. But that means nothing if they can’t even bother to make sure the document they want you to spend your time reading is professionally written.

Much like the referencing system you used at university when submitting your projects or dissertations, adhering to a style guide adds authority to your writing and helps your reader focus on your message.

Do you need to create a style guide?

The main question to consider before you create a style guide for your business is: Do I need to create one or can I use one that already exists?

Various style guides or manuals of style exist, and some industries will prefer a specific style guide. This is especially the case if you work in science or technology.

So, it may be that your industry has a specific standard they like to follow anyway, in which case it’s a straightforward decision. Use the standard.

If your industry sector doesn’t have a standard style guide, you might want to use one of the guides previously mentioned. These are frequently used but small and medium sized businesses and are a good commercial option.

In either case you’ll want to:

  • Spend some time becoming familiar with the style guide

  • Along with your authors and editors, agree on the sections that are most relevant. This will depend on the size and scope of your business

  • Decide how to implement the guide

  • Consider how the process should be monitored.

It might be a good idea for someone to become a ‘style guide champion’ to coordinate the implementation since questions will arise as new content is written.

Remember, your ultimate goal is to develop greater consistency in your copy. To do that everyone in your team needs to be in agreement.

The third and final option is to create your own in-house style guide. In which case, what are some of the things you need to include? Remember, it’s your in-house standard, so you can make it as long or as short as you like.

Spelling, grammar and layout is important when creating content for your readers.
Will your document match your brand values?

What will you include in the style guide?

Some things to consider are:

Your target readers

Before you write any copy or content, you need to think about your readers.

Who are they? What type of content do they like? What tone of voice do they respond to?

What type of language do they use? Is their preferred tone formal or informal? Do they use specific terminology or jargon? Do they respond to long form or short form content?

If you have a strong brand identity you should already have the answers to these questions. Creating a style guide gives you the opportunity to create a framework for consistently applying the concepts.

Guidelines on grammar, punctuation and structure

This is really important because clients easily spot ‘small’ inconsistencies and make value judgements based on these.

What’s the point in telling your clients that you act with professionalism but then give them content that screams ‘lack of attention to detail’?

So here are some things you want to think about:

  • Do you use UK English or US English? European Spanish or Latin American Spanish?

  • When do you use the passive voice and when do you avoid it?

  • How are headings and sections in a document structured?

  • How are lists formatted? Are they numbered or bulleted?

  • What’s the ideal sentence or paragraph length for written copy?

Unique brand words or phrases:

  • Are you using naming your products or services consistently? For example, do you refer to ‘customers’ or ‘clients’?

  • How do you refer to competitor brands?

  • Are there any prohibited words or phrases? For example, when is it OK to use slang?

  • How do foreign words or expressions appear? Some companies avoid using Latin phrases (like ad hoc or per annum) but scientific content will place Latin names in italics

Typography and formatting:

  • What are your preferred fonts, font sizes and spacing options?

  • How are dates and numbers written?

  • Do you have a preferred style for tables, graphs or illustrations?

These are all starting points for you to consider when creating your own in-house style guide.

Creating an effective process for written content

What this means is that writers have an agreed set of guidelines to adhere to when creating any type of copy.

Editors can then make sure all copy contributes to the company’s brand in a clear and consistent way.

This in turn makes it easier to translate content for a multilingual audience.

And for the client, style guides help to enhance the readability of a document keeping the reader’s attention focused on the message and not the format.

Do you need help to create a style guide that works for you and your business? Contact me to find out how I can help you!

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