Every business, including yours, should create content. Whether you sell widgets, offer a service or run a technology company, one of the best ways to connect with your leads and customers is through useful, interesting content that engages them.
Every content creator (yes, this means you) should have a style guide. A style guide will ensure consistency in how your company communicates, which leads to a better reader experience.
Even if readers don’t realize it on a conscious level, inconsistencies can distract from the message and make the brand seem less professional and reliable. It means that your brand will sound like your brand, no matter who is doing the writing on a given day.
What Is a Style Guide?
Style guides, also called manuals of style, are reference documents that set standards and describe best practices for word choice, spelling, grammar and punctuation. Some widely used style guides include:
- Associated Press (AP) Stylebook (commonly used by journalists and bloggers)
- Chicago Manual of Style (a popular choice for academics and authors of all types)
- APA Style (used in social sciences)
- AMA Manual of Style (used by the medical community)
- Modern Language Association (MLA) Handbook (used in the arts and literature)
If you’re familiar with any of these common guides, you might be thinking, “What? You expect me to write a 300-page tome on grammar and spelling?” And the answer is no. Absolutely not.
In fact, these common style guides exist so that every company and publication does not need to start by inventing the wheel.
When we say your brand should have its own style guide, we mean a “house guide” consisting of words, phrases and usage that are unique to your industry or company.
What Should Be Included?
Start by choosing which of the major style manuals (likely one of the ones listed above, although others are available) you want to use as the foundation for your company’s style. You’ll also select a designated dictionary — yes, there are differences, and plenty of them.
The rest of your house style guide will consist of words and phrases not found in your style manual and/or dictionary of choice, as well as ways that your brand’s style will differ from these documents. Some examples might include:
- You are using a style manual that recommends the serial comma but would prefer not to use it. (It’s that comma before “and” or “or” in a series).
- Your dictionary of choice says to hyphenate “e-mail,” but you’d prefer “email.”
- You want to list specific words or phrases pertaining to your brand that aren’t listed in the dictionary. (Apple’s massive, 197-page style guide does a lot of this, as you would imagine: “iMac” not “Imac,” “AirPort” not “Airport”).
MailChimp’s style guide
You may also want to take the lead of MailChimp’s savvy but untraditional style manual and include sections on your organization’s writing goals, tone and voice. It stipulates that MailChimp should be represented with writing that is clear, useful, friendly and appropriate — going so far as to say, “Write like a human. Don’t be afraid to break a few rules if it makes your writing more relatable.”
What do you want your company’s writing to convey? Your style guide is the perfect place to convey that.
What Should Not Be Included?
A house style guide is not the place to teach your team the basics of grammar and spelling. Let your chosen foundation style guide and dictionary do the heavy lifting when it comes to that. Don’t fret over explaining the difference between “it’s” and “its.” That has been done before — many times in many places — and the answer is always the same.
That’s the key to whether you should include something: Is there a universal correct answer? If yes, leave it out.
Your house style guide should serve to explain your brand’s preferred usage when there is more than one option.
What Makes a Good Style Guide?
Your style guide is designed to be a reference document, not a novel. Very few people will read it cover to cover. Instead, it will be consulted as needed to answer questions. It should be well-organized and straightforward so that users can quickly and easily find the answer they are looking for.
National Georgaphic’s style manual includes a thorough alphabetical listing, notes, sources, and and a search bar.
For that same reason, it’s also useful (though not vital) to have a searchable version. National Geographic’s style manual is a great example of an online version, but your guide can also be a searchable PDF or Word document.
Your style guide is a living document that will evolve and grow over time. One person in your organization should act as the keeper of the guide, updating it as needed. That person should be thorough and well organized with an impeccable grasp on grammar and usage rules.
Developing your own house style guide may seem like a lot of work, but you’ll be surprised by how quickly it can come together — and just how helpful it can be in creating more consistent, professional content.