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:
- Voice and tone. Describe your company’s personality as evinced in its written materials. Is the voice confident? Casual? Humorous? More or less formal? Using second or third person, or a combination of the two? Do you strive to avoid passive construction, or long chains of nouns? Now give examples of text that does and does not use the voice you’re looking for.
- Brand guidelines. Describe, and provide examples of, proper use of company and product names, taglines, etc. (This section can also cover design guidelines for use of logos and other imagery, if relatively straightforward, or such issues may be addressed in a separate visual style guide.)
- References. Where should users go with issues not covered in the corporate style guide? List a preferred dictionary, thesaurus, and commercial style guide or guides—for the nuts and bolts of business writing, I like the Chicago Manual of Style, Strunk & White’s Elements of Style, and the Associated Press Stylebook. The fabulous Christine Kent will address commercial style guides in depth in this blog post.
- Grammar and mechanics. Provide a cheat sheet for the most common questions in this area. Serial comma or not? Em dash or en dash? There’s no one right answer, but consistency is important.
- Formatting and style conventions. Should you capitalize all items in tables, or just headers? How do you handle punctuation in bulleted lists? Which numbers should you spell out? Each organization has its own way of doing things; whatever you choose, make consistency your goal.
- Online concerns. If you’re writing for the Web, mobile devices, or social media, make sure to include guidelines for those formats. At a minimum, your guide should describe use of keywords and metatags for search engine optimization, specific word or character counts, and terms or styles specific to electronic media—naming and style conventions for filenames, downloads, forms, etc. Describe differences in voice and tone from medium to medium; an annual report, a case study, a blog post, and a Facebook status update will strike variations on a larger theme.
- Word list. This is what most writers think of when they say “style guide”—the heart of your document, the section that will see the most frequent additions. Email or e-mail? Decision-maker or decision maker? Startup or start-up or startup? Include the names of clients, competitors, specialized terms in your field. Build your list over time.
- Product names, acronyms, and trademarks. These elements could start out as items in your word list. Larger companies with numerous products will want to break them out into separate lists. For each list, include a clear description of overall policy—for example, where and how often should you show trademark symbols for product names?
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