I work in marketing at a midsized technology firm. My boss tells me we need a style guide. Yesterday. And I’m just the person to produce it. While I do some writing as part of my job, and I can put commas where they belong—OK, most of the time—I’m not a writer or editor. Where do I start? And how do I decide what to include?
My dear Subject,
I sense some tension in your words. The phrase “style guide” is a bit intimidating, is it not? An official document, almighty arbiter of Right and Wrong… for some, it may conjure visions of school reports awash in red ink, or possibly nuns with rulers.
Please, relax. You may wish to wander for a few minutes in your rose garden, or have a soothing cup of tea. When I’m feeling overwhelmed, I myself enjoy a nice cucumber sandwich and a chat with the coachmen.
Much better now, yes? Good. Now, envision a document that frees you from making the same decisions over and over again, a repository of not only simple rules of spelling and punctuation but deeper perspectives on the personality and ethos of your company. A good style guide functions as an impartial, consensual guide to How Things Are Done Around Here, freeing individuals from having to play grammar police or hold too many rules in their heads at once. And rather than being set in stone, it’s a living document that changes and grows with the organization it supports. Forthwith:
A style guide may be as simple as a sheet of notebook paper with the alphabet down one side and a handful of words scrawled across it. And that’s an excellent place to start. But for a larger organization such as yours, you’ll need to create an expandable, searchable document divided into categories. You might want to start with a Word document; assign one person to collect additions and changes to the guide, and to post a dated PDF to an accessible network location at regular intervals. (PDF files offer an excellent combination of stability and searchability.)
For small groups of editorially savvy users, or for constantly updated sections such as word lists or trademarks, a commonly accessible passworded wiki could work well; try Google Docs or the like.
What elements comprise a good style guide? It will vary from company to company, and this is certainly not an exhaustive list, but most marketing organizations will want some combination of the following elements:
Share and Share Alike
A style guide is no good if no one knows about it, and multiple, competing style guides can be worse than none at all. Before you start, collect any existing style guides that may be floating around your organization. Your goal is consistency across departments and media; that’s much easier to achieve if you invite others to join you in a group endeavor than if you ignore their preferences.
Make sure, too, to share your style guide with vendors and partners. At the Content Bureau, we’re thrilled when a client has a guide to share with us—it shows that the company respects good writing and clear communication, and wants us to provide the best work possible. And if you’re developing, revamping, or expanding your style guide, a copywriting agency like TCB can help you shape it to your needs.
Now that wasn’t so bad, was it? Think of the style guide as the Windsor knot—nay, the foundation garment—of your editorial wardrobe, working behind the scenes to make you look good from all angles. Let your style shine for all to see.
The Grammar Queen