A style guide is one of the most valuable tools your editorial team can have at its disposal. It’s the North Star that leads individual writers towards a unified tone of voice across the company, providing clarity and direction. But what is it, exactly?
A style guide details the conventions an organization or team should follow in their writing. By using a bespoke style guide, companies can have confidence that their content conveys their unique brand voice and is cohesive across all written material—from marketing copy to annual reports.
The need for a style guide stems from creativity and preference. If two writers are given the same brief, they’ll produce very different pieces of writing, both in terms of content and style. Whether they’re Oxford comma obsessive or like to scatter semicolons liberally through their work, they’ll apply their own individual stylistic ideals to copy, such as the use of punctuation and tone.
And while individuality in content is part of the creative process, it goes without saying that companies should maintain cohesion in their writing style to best represent their products and brand.
A study by Lucidpress and Demand Metric found that consistent brand representation increases revenue by an average of 23%. Additionally, 71% of participants in the study said that irregular use of branding causes confusion.
Most readers won’t consciously notice subtle variations in writing style. But inconsistencies—particularly in specific brand language and tone—may leave them with a head-scratching sense of uncertainty and ultimately erode their trust in the company.
The answer to this content conundrum is an editorial style guide that establishes the company’s standards and helps to ensure cohesion across all written work.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was a comprehensive style guide. Creating this vital tool takes time, so start with your key principles and the most important consistencies. Think of it as a living document: If you notice differences in style when reviewing your team’s content, iteratively add new rules.
A well-structured style guide will boost your writers’ working knowledge while cutting down on your editing time. To make sure yours works as hard as possible for your content team, these are the steps to follow.
Let’s talk about tone. Clarifying your brand’s voice is a key part of establishing its identity and helps differentiate you from other businesses. It’s also a core part of articulating your company’s mission, values, and character to your customers.
Every writer on your team should use language that conveys the brand voice. This means setting the appropriate balance of formality and familiarity, as well as seriousness and humor.
To determine your tone of voice, consider the main attributes you want consumers to associate with your brand. Is it friendly and fun? Authoritative and reliable?
It’s also worth thinking about which characteristics you don’t want customers to equate with your company. For example, it’s unlikely you want the brand to be perceived as presumptuous, frivolous, or old-fashioned.
As a next step in creating your style guide, set out the requirements for your business’ point of view. Essentially, this means clarifying whether your team should write in the first, second, or third person.
Next, establish a preferred grammatical voice. Not to be confused with brand voice, the grammatical voice refers to the way verbs are formulated. The most common examples are the active voice and the passive voice:
Businesses usually favor the active voice because it sharpens writing and adds a sense of immediacy. However, there may be circumstances where the passive voice is more appropriate, such as in customer service communications.
The best style guides make note of these rules and exceptions.
The most effective style guides also provide as much information as possible about the company’s editorial preferences. Set your content team up for success by including these categories into your document:
Preferred terms For example, should your team refer to those who buy the company’s products or services as customers, clients, members, or something else?
Acronyms and abbreviations Subtle variations can creep into abbreviations. Should initialisms be punctuated with periods? Which acronyms should be capitalized? You might also like to spell out any regularly used abbreviations and provide rules to follow for less common ones.
Dates and numbers Pay attention to how you format dates and whether you spell out numbers or write them as digits.
Approved spellings It’s worth specifying the formatting and spelling of often-used words, including rules on capitalization. For ease, organize this part of your style guide alphabetically.
Branded terms Accuracy is especially important here, not only for editorial consistency but also to help your business avoid potential lawsuits. For example, if the company’s written material includes trademarked terms (e.g., Coca-Cola®), they must always be spelled and formatted in line with the trademark holder’s requirements. If any branded terms are referred to regularly, add them to the style guide.
Save yourself and your writing team a lot of back and forth by outlining the company’s formatting conventions in the style guide. There is a host of factors to address under this umbrella, including:
In our experience managing more than 750 content professionals, the more formatting details you give writers at the outset, the more closely they’ll adhere to formatting expectations. The result? Far fewer revisions later on.
Customers want to feel like they’re consistently engaging with the same company, whether they’re reading a brochure, a product description, or a case study. However, that’s not to say your team will use an identical tone across every single touchpoint.
While all writing should express the company’s values by adhering to the brand voice, your team can dial the tone up or down depending on the channel. For example, you might adopt a playful attitude for a social media campaign and a more serious persona when responding to complaints.
The trick, however, is not to flex the tone too far. Outline any types of variations in the style guide, along with examples, so your content team can stay on the same page.
Let’s go through five practical tips for setting up your style guide and spreading it throughout your organization.
When it comes to length, your style guide doesn’t need to rival the Complete Works of Shakespeare. Instead of covering every single grammatical rule, cherry-pick the points that are most applicable to your team and refer to a backup for anything else. Many companies will reference The Chicago Manual of Style or Associated Press Stylebook for any clarifications. See how Princeton University does this in practice.
Thousands of businesses, from award-winning startups to Fortune 500 companies, have benefited from partnering with Proofed. Learn more about how we can help you scale your content production process by scheduling a call with our team today.
Lost your brand voice?
Let’s talk about the support you need.