According to a 2016 report entitled “The Impact of Brand Consistency“, almost 90 percent of respondents to a Demand Metric survey said they believe consistency in brand messaging is important; yet, less than 10 percent said they believe their own brand’s messaging is “very consistent.” One powerful and fundamental way to remedy this discrepancy in your business is with a writing style guide.
Every business should have a writing style guide, particularly if it has multiple team members writing content. If you’re a marketer or branding strategist, you need to develop a style guide that ensures your messaging remains consistent across all branded content.
What Is a Writing Style Guide?
A writing style guide is a document establishing a business’s accepted standards for writing conventions in order to maintain a consistent style and tone across all content the company publishes no matter how many contributors are on its content writing team.
This central document can serve as the nucleus for your marketing department as well as relevant internal stakeholders and agency partners to gain clarity on what your business expects for every piece of work it publishes.
How a writing style guide ensures consistency is by indicating the fundamental writing rules everyone contributing to the company’s content must follow.
A writing style guide is a living document, not a static one. This means once you’ve composed it, that doesn’t mean it’s finished.
Rather, as your company grows and your brand evolves, you may refine–or altogether shift–your messaging and the brand identity you wish to project. Your style guide must evolve with your business in order to remain relevant.
What a Writing Style Guide Isn’t
What a writing style guide is not, however, is an employee handbook. It should not include matters of inclusivity, discrimination or harassment, for example, unless those types of sensitive topics are the specific focus of much of your content.
An effective style guide is not too long and doesn’t need to explore every potential issue a writer for your company could face.
Generally, a writing style guide should be no longer than five pages; otherwise, you could overwhelm your writers with so many rules to make sure they follow that they lose focus on the quality of the content they’re producing.
There’s also no need to use your writing style guide to teach your writers the fundamental rules of grammar; they should already know these. Your guide should focus on the distinctions of language and style outside of the universal rules that your company requires.
Difference Between Style Guide and Brand Guide
Most brands have two primary style guides: one for writing and one for visuals. The former is its writing style guide; the latter is its brand guide.
- Writing style guide – A set of standards brands use to define how to maintain a consistent tone and voice through written content.
- Brand guide – A set of standards that defines visual design elements a brand utilizes to establish consistency in its visuals and images.
Elements more suitable for your brand style guide than your writing style guide, then, include:
- Color palettes
- Logos, including their acceptable usage
- Typography and image standards
Why Is a Writing Style Guide Important
A good branding strategy enables you to control and effectively community your company’s identity. A writing style guide sets boundaries that help your team produce written content that aligns with your company’s overall mission.
By failing to determine editorial standards for your company’s content, you risk inconsistency in your messaging.
The more content your business adds to its website and blog, the more inconsistencies can potentially appear, in large part due to unclarity regarding the writing style your business prefers. This is why developing a writing style guide is so important.
According to the Demand Metric survey cited earlier, when businesses established consistency in their branding and messaging, revenues increased by 23 percent.
The lack of a writing style guide also poses the risk of wasted company time as contributors and their supervisors’ debate which language rules to use in which situations. In other words, a writing style guide also helps make your team more efficient.
How to Craft an Effective Writing Style Guide
Step #1 – Understand Your Business
In order to define your company’s branding and messaging, you have to understand your company’s values and mission. In other words: know thyself. Otherwise, you risk compiling a haphazard, irrelevant and inconsistent guide leading to writing possessing those same qualities.
Step #2 – Develop Target Audience Personas
Who are the typical readers you’re aiming to reach with your content? Are they older or younger, male or female, upper, middle or lower class, managerial or workers, etc.? Are you writing primarily B2C (business-to-consumer) or B2B (business-to-business) content?
Create a detailed profile of the perfect audience persona for your content, and, if you have multiple target audiences, develop personas for each of them.
You can then use this to define distinctions in language and messaging to use for each respective buyer persona.
Step #3 – Select an Established Style Manual as a Foundation
Instead of completely reinventing the wheel, as it were, it could be helpful to base your writing style guide on one of the established style manuals such as:
- AP stylebook – For journalists and news outlets
- APA guidelines – For business, politics, engineering and social science
- Bluebook – For legal writing
- Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) – For book publishing
- MLA – For academic writing
If so, you should also include reference to the relevant elements of this broader guide, including your brand’s exceptions to these rules, in your business’s own style guide.
Note that each of these represents varying priorities, be it broad readability or appropriateness for a specific industry.
If selecting a broader style manual as part or the whole of your company’s writing style guide, peruse them all to find the one that most closely matches your company’s own priorities.
Step #4 – Define Your Editorial Standards
Define the style and tone your writers need to set. In general, your language should match your visual design elements for consistent branding.
Identify specific words and phrases that writers should and shouldn’t use when describing your brand.
This is also where you distinguish the grammar and spelling issues you require when either there are multiple “right” ways to do it or they reflect common errors, points of confusion or general distinctions related to your specific business or industry.
For example, you might want to define:
- Choice of passive vs. active voice
- Relevant abbreviations and acronyms
- Accepted use of tense (past, present, future,) POV (first-, second- or third-person,) word choice and capitalization
- Accepted use of grammar and punctuation, such as quotation marks and hyphens
- Accepted use of rhetorical devices like lists and transition words (eg. therefore, however, in addition, moreover, etc.)
- Accepted use of abbreviations and acronyms
- Proper citation and sourcing methods
- Uniformity of voice and tone
- Stylistic differences between content produced for digital vs. print outlets
- Proper social media messaging
Your editorial standards should also include any branded wording and phrasing, such as when a brand name is written one way in certain circumstances (like a title, headline or logo) and another way in other circumstances (such as within the written content.)
If applicable, they might include technical and formatting factors like words-per-sentence and sentences-per-paragraph.
One way to help your team identify all the integral components of your guide is to use a writing style guide template. These provide the criteria from which to set your company’s specific preferences.
Step #5 – Provide Examples
Provide sufficient examples of the style elements in your guide for writers to understand what you require and deliver it.
Make sure to include examples that speak to the consistent tone and voice you wish to set, and not just your grammatical rules. These examples should reflect the feeling you aim to convey in your content and evoke in your readers.
Once you’ve composed your business’s writing style guide, it’s time to share it with the rest of your team. It’s essential to communicate the standards in your writing style guide to all your employees and enforce your established best practices for writing across all the content you publish.
This way, you set the stage for a brand narrative that stays uniform across all channels of marketing and communication.
What Else to Include In Your Writing Style Guide
In addition to the factors and standards described above, your company’s writing style guide should also include any pertinent aspects of readability, brevity, terminology and dialect, as well as matters of your brand personality, including writing clarity, narrative style, formality, assertiveness, liveliness and sentiment.
If you’re writing about technical subjects, then your guide should also clarify matters of compliance with specific industry standards.
If applicable, your guide should include any exceptions to the rules it otherwise establishes. This may include industry-specific terminology or jargon.
Figure out the elements about which your company’s preferences differ from the broader style manual on which your writing style guide is based. Above all, make sure your writing style guide fits your intended readership.
About the Author!
Helen Back is a freelance writer specializing in entertainment technology.