How to Create a Writing Style Guide

Businesses these days produce a startling amount of content, and as that number grows, more inconsistencies are sure to emerge.

Failure to settle on and record agreed editorial guidelines is a recipe for uneven messaging, whether it’s due to a lack of clarity about the style you’d like to write in or a lack of communication among your organization’s many content writers.

As a result, most businesses recognize that they will need to create a writing style guide at some point.

What is the purpose of a writing style guide?

A “writing style guide” is a document that establishes standard writing, grammar, and punctuation norms for a certain company in order to maintain a consistent tone and style regardless of the number of content contributors.

In a nutshell, it’s a document that lays down the basic rules of writing that we’ll all agree to follow to maintain consistency throughout all of our content, such as whether or not the “a” after the colon in this line should be capitalized.

When writing content for HubSpot, the “a” should not be capitalized.

But, if that’s the case, why did I capitalize “if” in the final parenthetical?

Because “If you write content for HubSpot, you should…” is a full sentence, the capital “If” is required.

Our writing style guide outlines these conventions.

If that train of thought was too mundane for you, you might think writing style guides are the most boring things on the planet and want to click away right now.

On the contrary, my brother,

The Importance of Writing Guides

The existence of a writing style guide is what keeps you from being caught up in an argument over whether there should be spaces before and after an ellipsis, if you should capitalize “for” in a title, or whether a number must be typed out completely.

Imagine how dull that debate will be if the writing style guide bores you.

Because of the existence of a style guide, you may use it as a small writing rulebook without having to wait through disputes about blockquotes.

An Example of a Writing Style Guide

If you want to see a writing style guide in action, check out the one made by HubSpot Partner Yokel Local.

Their writing style guide (or “editorial style guide,” as they call it) was created to ensure that both in-house writers and freelancers were on the same page when it came to writing and editing marketing content for customers.

Yokel Local is the source of this information.

You’ll also notice that they didn’t stray too far into the weeds.

The entire guide is 15 pages long, with large, appealing lettering, and anything not mentioned expressly in the guide is left to the AP Stylebook and Merriam-Webster dictionary.

The document’s simplicity is a good thing, and it looks like the people who made it had a lot of fun making it to match their brand.

This blog post will walk you through the important aspects of a brand writing style guide so you may construct one for yourself in an effort to assist you in getting started with your own style guide.

What Should Your Writing Style Guide Contain?

Style Guide

Style manuals are reference books that instruct authors on how to manage grammar, punctuation, and any other unique situations.

The AP Stylebook or the Chicago Manual of Style are used by the majority of businesses.

It’s up to you to choose which manual your organization should use.

You can buy online subscriptions to these manuals for your staff to use, and you should provide the login information in this section of the editorial style guide to make access as simple as possible.

Employees may be more likely to use these tools if they are given an online subscription with a search option rather than a printed book that they must flip through to locate their answers.

While these style standards are useful for basic grammar principles, for the sake of branding, tone, and style, you’ll definitely want to make some exceptions to the rules.

Use this portion of your editorial style guide to identify such exclusions as well as some of the guidelines that people should memorize when writing for your organization, regardless of whether they are in line with or against house style.

Consider the following scenario:

How do you capitalize a word?

Do you capitalize your product’s name?

Despite your stylebook’s suggestions, are there any prepositions in your title that you wish were capitalized?

What are the abbreviations you use?

What is the best way to punctuate those abbreviations?

Would you type “a.k.a.” or “aka” instead of “a.k.a.”?

Is it “OK” or “OK”?

“OK” is another option.

Do you use an Oxford comma in your writing?

Answers to common questions like these should be listed in the first section of your editorial style guide so that individuals have a quick reference point. This will save you time and encourage consistency.

Please feel free to contribute to this list if new misunderstandings develop and are resolved during the content creation process.

Because you’re making your own style guide, feel free to use guidelines from other style guides.

The most crucial thing is that you follow the same rules throughout all of your content.

Words That Are Frequently Troublesome

Most businesses use industry-specific vocabulary, and not all of that terminology has a widely accepted spelling.

If you write a lot about digital marketing, as we do at HubSpot, for example, you’ll notice a lot of discrepancies in the spelling and capitalization of words like these:

What’s the difference between ecommerce and ecommerve?

Like on Facebook vs. Like on Facebook
… and the list goes on and on.

Rather than discussing how to spell, capitalize, or hyphenate certain terms, include a section in your style guide titled “Commonly Troublesome Words” where writers can quickly look up the correct spelling according to your house style guide.

Advice for International Businesses

If you have a global audience and write content for specific, same-language markets, you should include details on whether you modify the spelling for those markets or stick with your house style.

Should American editors change the spelling of “favour” to “favor” if marketers from HubSpot’s Dublin office write a blog post?

What’s the difference between “internationalize” and “internationalise”?

These questions should be addressed in your style guide, and the section under “Commonly Troublesome Words” is a good place to start.

Similarly, if you’re publishing content in multiple languages, you should write style guides for each one.

Style and tone

This area of the editorial style guide should focus on something less specific than grammar rules but potentially more important: the tone of your content.

Is it permissible for authors to write in the first person?

What are your thoughts on the use of industry jargon?

Consider the terms you’d use in a perfect world to describe your content.

Which of these words do you aim to evoke with your content?

Conversational?

educational?

Academic?

Funny?

Controversial?

Irreverent

artistic?

Objective

Sophisticated?

You may feel compelled to include all of the above in your content, but limit yourself to just a handful.

Explain why it’s crucial to attain this style and tone in your content, and give examples of content (excerpts are good) that does so well — especially if those excerpts are currently on your site.

If there are any stylistic qualities that your content must not contain, this is the place where you should give that information as well.

For the sake of comparison, examples of what not to do are useful here as well.

Always keep your target demographic and customer personas in mind when deciding on style and tone.

Which style and tone would be most appealing to them?

This leads us to the following section:

Personas

Because buyer personas are intricately linked to style and tone, it’s critical to include this area of your style guide either before or after the “Style and Tone” section.

Why are personas so vital to include?

Because your target audience, i.e., the individuals who will be reading everything you write, should inform the style and tone you choose.

However, unlike the personas established by your sales and marketing teams, the personas in your editorial style guide don’t need to be as detailed.

This should include specifics, like how to deal with objections during the sales process and how to find these personas “in the wild” or over the phone.

It’s important to keep your editorial style guide’s personas short and to the point. They should highlight the highlights that explain who your target audience is, their pain points, how they prefer to be communicated with, the value your company provides, and how a picture can help writers keep in mind when they write content.

When working with freelance writers, including personalities in your style guide is quite useful.

If you’re doing a good job managing freelance writers, you’ll be able to provide plenty of context for the content they’re writing.

Always include a persona and how that affects tone and writing style when beginning a new freelance writer engagement.

Formatting and graphics

I know, I advised you not to get into the weeds with visual rules before.

This remains true.

A second brand design style guide for more sophisticated visual things should be created by your design team or agency.

(Did I mention I’m not a designer?)

If your writers are ever responsible for developing visual assets and/or copyediting visual assets developed by designers, you should include a note in your written style guide.

Here are some frequently asked questions that may affect authors or editors:

Where can authors find photographs and how should they credit them?

When should photos be centered, aligned to the right, or aligned to the left?

Is it necessary for text to wrap around images?

For your text and headers, what are the RGB and hex codes?

What typefaces are acceptable?

Is it possible for writers to employ italics, bold, or underlining?

Is it confined to certain situations, such as bolding headlines and hyperlinks, if so?

Which type of bullet (square, round, or other) should be used, and how should they be aligned with the rest of the text?

“1”, “1.” or “1.”)” should be used for numbered lists.

Many of these graphical elements can be pre-set in your content management system, but they can be readily overridden when authors copy and paste content with formatting attached from elsewhere—or by an overzealous writer with a flare for design.

In your editorial style guide, spell out these expectations, and direct those with more complex requirements to your brand style guide.

Content that has been approved and that has not been approved

Third-party research and statistics are frequently cited in great content.

Provide approved industry resources from which your writer can draw — and, more critically, ones from which they cannot draw — to make your writer’s job easier.

Divide this area of your editorial style guide into two sections: industry resources that are suggested and approved, and resources that should not be mentioned.

Competitors and unreliable resources should be listed in the “do not mention” section, as well as controversial issues and viewpoints that should be avoided at all costs.

Many companies, for example, have stringent policies prohibiting any mention of politics or religion in their content or have guidelines stating when it is permissible to include and how to frame the topic.

Similarly, many businesses are bound by legal constraints, so this portion of the style guide may include instructions for obtaining legal approval prior to publishing a piece of content.

This part of your editorial style guide explains how these disputes work for your brand so that you don’t have a bad public image.

Sources

Great research comes with great responsibility… and, unfortunately, a lot of options.

By deciding on a single technique and documenting it in your editorial style guide, you can clear up any uncertainty about how to properly reference research.

If your organization asks you to, show them how to make footnotes, references, links to other websites, and even bibliographies.

This component of your editorial style guide doesn’t have to be very lengthy.

Write down the rules and give some examples of good citations so that writers can credit their sources correctly.

Examples to Demonstrate What Is Correct and What Is Not

Whether you provide real-life examples of the concepts you’re explaining on the same page or as an appendix at the conclusion of the guide, every area of your editorial style guide can benefit from them.

Include a graphic sample of a well-formatted blog article with callouts that clarify why the pieces therein are successful when discussing correct formatting, for example.

If you’re talking about grammar, give an example that’s bad and then mark it up to indicate how a writer could repair it to conform to your editorial style guide.

Connecting your criteria to correct implementations on your website can help to clarify these concepts and reduce instances of follow-up questions and exceptions to the principles you’ve given forth.

What to Leave Out of Your Style Guide

It’s tempting to try to compile the most thorough style guide ever.

However, when documents become really long, it can be difficult to use on a daily basis.

By removing some elements, you can achieve the goal of being “comprehensive yet usable.”

The following are some of the most common sections that people usually include, but I think they should be in a separate file:

Notes on how to work with content.

Submitting content to your editorial team, seeking a spot on the editorial calendar, and revising cycles are just a few examples.

Recommendations for writing content that is SEO-friendly

Detailed guidelines for using logos and other visual style guide elements

These would be retained for a separate brand or visual style guide, with a few exceptions.

Your editorial style guide will simply serve as a guide for authors, laying out a set of guidelines to which they must adhere when writing content for your website.

It reduces ambiguity, guesswork, and disagreements among grammar and content nerds over what amounts to a matter of editorial opinion.

If you’re ever in doubt about whether something should or shouldn’t be in your written style guide, use it to help you decide.

Cut it down if it’s too long to be useful; beef it up if it’s too short to answer the most common questions.

How to Persuade Others to Follow Your Style Guide

It would be a waste of time and effort to produce a thorough style guide if no one used it.

Here’s the truth: no matter how simple you make it, some individuals will simply refuse to utilize it.

So… just accept it.

However, once you’ve grieved, there are a few things you may do to improve your chances of adoption:

1. Include others in the creation process from the beginning.

The Grammar Czar is a position that no one wants to hold.

And if you do, I guarantee no one at work thinks it’s charming.

Instead of dictating the guidelines that your entire firm must follow while writing, get a few people to collaborate on the style guide.

To make it more likely that this group will be used more widely, it should be made up of people from more than one department.

2. Make it easy to find and use.

Our style guide is provided on our internal wiki, making it simple to locate, bookmark, and Ctrl+F for rapid solutions to questions.

Make yours just as easy to find and utilize.

3. Keep it current.

Your style guide should be updated on a regular basis.

Allow writers to raise questions about proper usage and receive answers as new questions arise, and make sure that the answers are represented in an updated version of the style guide.

Source

blog.hubspot.com/blog/tabid/6307/bid/31247/the-simple-template-for-a-thorough-content-style-guide.aspx