Businesses are pumping out content at an astonishing rate these days – and inconsistencies inevitably creep in as the volume increases. This is due to a lack of clarity about the style you want to write in or incoherent communication about the multitude of content creators in your organization, failure to determine and document accepted editorial guidelines is a recipe for inconsistent messaging.
Because of this, at some point most companies accept the need to develop a writing style guide.
What is a writing style guide?
A writing style guide is a document that establishes standard writing, grammar, and punctuation conventions for a particular organization to maintain a consistent tone and style regardless of how many content contributors are on the team.
In short, a document that contains the basic rules of writing that we will all follow to ensure consistency across all of our content – such as whether I should capitalize the “a” after the colon in this sentence.
Answer: Avoid capitalizing the “a” when writing content for HubSpot.
But wait … if that’s the case, why should I capitalize the “if” in that last bracket? Because, “If you’re writing content for HubSpot, you should …” is a full sentence that guarantees the uppercase “If”.
These conventions are given in our writing style guide.
If you found this train of thought terribly mundane, you might think that writing style guides are the most boring things in the world and have a burning desire to click away right away. Au contraire, mon frère.
Why Writing Guides Is Important
The existence of a writing style guide saves you from getting caught up in a debate about whether there should be spaces before and after an ellipse, whether to capitalize “for” in a title, or when to write a number in full.
If you’re bored of the writing style guide, imagine how bland this debate is going to be. The presence of a style guide means that you can simply have the style guide on hand as a small set of rules without having to disregard debates about block quotations.
Example of a writing style guide
To see a writing style guide in action, check out the one created by HubSpot partner Yokel Local. Their Writing Style Guide (or “Editorial Style Guide” as they call it) was created to keep both their in-house staff and their freelancers on the same page when writing and editing marketing content for clients.
Source: Yokel Local
You will find that they haven’t gone too far in the weeds either. The entire guide comprises 15 pages in large, attractive lettering. Anything not expressly stated in the guide is left to the AP Stylebook and the Merriam-Webster dictionary. The simplicity is effective, and they clearly had fun making the document to be in line with their branding guidelines.
To help you get started with your own style guide, this blog post walks you through the essential elements of a branding style guide so you can create one for yourself.
What to include in your writing style guide
Style guides are reference books that help authors learn how to use grammar, punctuation, and special use cases. Most companies use either the AP Stylebook or the Chicago Manual of Style. It is up to you to decide which guide your company should follow.
You can purchase online subscriptions to these manuals for your staff to refer to. You should also include the login in this section of the editorial style guide to simplify access. Employees may find that they are more likely to refer to these tools when they get an online subscription that includes a search facility instead of a paper book that they have to flip through to find their answers.
While these style guidelines provide a good reference point for basic grammar rules, for reasons of branding, tone, and style, you should probably make some exceptions to the rules they contain. Use this section of your editorial style guide to outline those exceptions and highlight some of the rules that are common in writing for your business and that employees should keep in mind – whether they are with or against the House style . For example:
- What are you capitalizing on? Are you capitalizing your product name? Are there certain prepositions that you want to capitalize in your title despite the recommendations of your stylebook?
- What are you shortening? How do you use these abbreviations? Would you like “a.k.a.” or “aka”? “Okay” or “O.K.”? Or “OK”?
- Are you using an oxford comma?
Listing answers to frequently asked questions like these in the first part of your editorial style guide will provide users with an easy reference source that will save them time and promote consistency. Feel free to add to this list if further confusion emerges and is resolved during content creation. You create your own style guide. So you can borrow different rules from different style guides. The important thing is that you use the same rules in all of the content you create.
Often annoying words
Most companies have industry-specific terminology, and not all of these terms have a commonly agreed spelling. For example, if you write a lot about digital marketing, like we do here at HubSpot, you will find a lot of inconsistencies in the spelling and capitalization of words like these:
- ebook vs. ebook vs. e-book
- Ecommerce vs. Ecommerce
- Internet vs. Internet
- Website vs. website
- Facebook Like vs. Facebook Like
- Retweet vs. Re-Tweet vs. ReTweet vs. ReTweet
… and on and on and on. Rather than discussing how to spell, capitalize, or split these words, include a section in your style guide titled “Commonly Problematic Words” so that authors can easily look up the correct spelling of these words according to your house style guide.
Consulting for global companies
If you have a global readership and you are creating content for specific markets in the same language, consider adding cues as to whether you will change the spelling for those markets or keep your house style.
For example, if marketers are blogging from HubSpot’s Dublin office, should American editors change their spelling from “favor” to “favor”? “Internationalize” to “Internationalize”? These questions should be answered in your style guide, and the Commonly Disruptive Words section is a logical place to go to.
Similarly, if you are creating content in different languages, style guidelines should be created for each language.
Style and tone
This section of the editorial style guide should deal with something less specific than grammar rules, but arguably more important: how you want your content to sound to the reader.
Can writers use the first person? How do you rate the use of technical jargon? Think of the words you would use to describe your content in an ideal world. Which of these adjectives should your content evoke?
- Goal setting?
You may think you want your content to include all of the above, but you’re forcing yourself to prioritize just a few. Explain why it is important to achieve this style and tone in your content, and give examples of content (excerpts are fine) that do it successfully – especially if those excerpts already exist on your own website. If there are stylistic traits that your content absolutely shouldn’t have, this is where that information should be included as well. Here, too, examples of what not to be done are helpful for a comparative illustration.
When deciding on the style and tone, consider your target audience and buyer personalities. Which style and tone would suit you best? This brings us to our next section …
Buyer personalities are inextricably linked with style and tone. So it’s important to include this section either before or after the “Style and Tone” section of your style guide. Why is it so important to include personas? Because the style and tone you adopt will depend on your target audience, i. H. The people who read all of these things that you write should be informed.
That being said, the personas in your editorial style guide don’t need to be as detailed as the personas created by your sales and marketing teams. (This may include detailed information such as objections that arise in the sales process and how to overcome them, or tips on how to identify those personas “in the wild” or when you received them over the phone.)
The personas in your editorial style guide should be short and simply pick out the highlights that explain exactly who your target audience is, their weak points, how they like to be communicated, what value your company offers and an image that authors can give a visual element, that you should consider when creating content.
Including personas in your style guide comes in very handy when you work with freelance writers. If you do a good job managing freelance writers, provide enough context to inform the content they are writing. A persona and how this affects the tone and style of writing should always be included when starting a new engagement as a freelance writer.
Graphics and formatting
I know I told you earlier not to go into detail with visual guidelines. It’s still true. Your design team or agency should create a separate brand design style guide that deals with more nuanced visual … things. (Can you say that I am not a designer?)
However, you should add some information to your written style guide if your writers are ever responsible for creating visual assets and / or editing visual assets created by designers. Here are some common questions that can affect a writer or editor:
- Where can authors obtain images and how do they correctly assign them?
- When should images be aligned right, left, or center?
- Should text enclose images?
- What are the RGB and Hex codes for your text and headings?
- Which fonts can be used?
- Can writers use italic, bold, or underline? If so, its use is restricted to certain occasions, e.g. B. Bold headers and hyperlinks?
- What type of bullets should be used (square, round, or other) and how should they align with the rest of the text?
- How should numbered lists appear: “1”, “1.” or “1.)”?
Many of these graphic elements can be preset in your content management system. However, they can easily be overwritten if authors copy and paste content from elsewhere with formatting appended – or by an overzealous writer with a flair for design. Outline these expectations in your editorial style guide and refer those with advanced needs to your brand style guide.
Approved and unapproved content
Great content often cites research and data from third party sources. Make things easier for your writer by providing approved industry resources to draw from – and most importantly, resources to draw out of. Break this section of your editorial style guide into two sections: Recommended and Approved Industry Resources and “Don’t Mention” resources.
The information in the “Don’t Mention” section should include competitors and unreliable resources, as well as controversial topics and opinions that should be avoided at all costs. For example, many companies strictly prohibit any mention of politics or religion in their content, or have provisions that explain when it is acceptable to start the discussion and how it should be framed. Similarly, many companies operate within certain legal restrictions. If so, this section of the style guide may contain instructions on how to obtain legal approval before any content is posted.
This section of your editorial style guide explains the intricacies of such controversy as it relates to your brand so you can prevent reputation management disasters.
With great research comes a great deal of responsibility … and unfortunately a lot of choices. Eliminate confusion about how to properly cite research by deciding which method to use and documenting it in your editorial style guide. Explain how to create footnotes, references, links to external websites, or even bibliographies if they are relevant to your business.
This section of your editorial style guide doesn’t have to be long. Just write down the rules and give some examples of correct citations so that authors can easily identify their sources correctly.
Examples to show what is right and what is wrong
Each section of your editorial style guide can benefit from real-life examples of the concepts you are discussing, whether you include those examples on the same page or as an appendix at the end of the guide.
For example, when talking about proper formatting, add a visual example of a well-formatted blog post with captions explaining why the elements in it are successful. When talking about grammar use, cite and flag a wrong example to show how a writer can correct it to align with your editorial style guide.
By bridging your needs with proper execution on your actual website, you can illustrate these concepts more clearly and reduce follow-up questions and exceptions to the rules you set.
What not to include in your style guide
It can be tempting to create the most comprehensive style guide ever. However, when documents get incredibly long, they can become a little difficult to use in everyday life. Aim for “comprehensive yet usable” by deliberately cutting off some sections. The most common sections that people will try but that I recommend to be in another document are:
- Notes on content operations. For example, you can send content to your editorial team, request a place in the editorial calendar or carry out revision cycles.
- Recommendations for creating SEO-friendly content.
- Nitty grainy rules for using logos or other visual style guide elements. With a few basic exceptions, these would be saved for a separate brand or visual style guide.
Your editorial style guide simply walks the writers through providing a set of standards they must adhere to when creating content for your website. It removes confusion, guesswork, and debate about what boils down to an issue of editorial opinion among grammar and content freaks. If you’re ever unsure whether or not there should be something in your written style guide, refer to using it to help make your decision. If it’s too long to be used, cut it off. If it’s too short to answer the most common questions, reinforce it.
Here’s how to get others to use your style guide
If you used all of this work to create a comprehensive style guide, it would be a real disappointment if no one used it.
Here is the truth: Some people just won’t use it no matter how easy you make it for them. So just … accept that. But after you are done grieving, there are a few things you can do to increase the likelihood of adoption:
1. Involve other people in the creation process right from the start.
Nobody wants to be the grammar tsar. And if you do, I promise you that no one you work with will find it cute. Rather than setting the rules your entire company must follow when writing, consider bringing a few people together to create the style guide as a group. Ideally, this small committee will have more than one department to increase the likelihood of widespread adoption.
2. Make it easy to find and use.
Our style guide is available on our internal wiki so users can easily find, bookmark, and use Ctrl + F to get quick answers to questions. Make yours similar easily accessible and user-friendly.
3. Keep updating it.
Your style guide should be a living document. As new questions arise, make it easy for authors to ask questions about proper usage and get a solution – and make sure the resolution is reflected in an updated version of the style guide.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in May 2015 and has been updated for completeness.