Learn what a writing style guide is, why it is important, and how to create your own for your company’s content.
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What Is a Style Guide?
A style guide, also called a style sheet or style manual, is a document containing all of the rules and guidelines for the creation and use of certain content.
English is an evolving language, and rules about spelling and grammar have changed with it. Spelling used to be more fluid—William Shakespeare famously spelled his last name more than 80 different ways—but today, consistency is our guiding principle.
The problem is that English is an unruly language whose rules vary over time and space. The idea of a correct form of English is mostly a fantasy.
You can be a “traveler” or a “traveller” standing “in line” or “on line” to buy an “aluminum” or “aluminium” can of soda on “Presidents Day” or “Presidents’ Day”—and it’s all technically correct. So how do you decide which words, phrases, or spelling to use?
That’s where style guides come into play. Style guides offer consistency. Instead of saying, “This is universally correct,” style guides say, “This is correct for us.”
Popular Style Manuals
Compositors at the University of Chicago Press back in the 1890s had a hard job: they had to read professors’ scribbled manuscripts and figure out what they were trying to say. Then, they’d pass their findings along to the “brainery,” a group of proofreaders whose job it was to correct errors and inconsistencies.
To make the process easier, the team created a list of style rules. This internal document was eventually published as a book for external use in 1906. Today, it’s better known as The Chicago Manual of Style—one of the oldest style manuals in America.
Publishing houses and newsrooms were the first to popularize the creation of style guides. Many organizations would adopt these established manuals instead of creating their own.
We recommend basing your company style manual on one of these formal guides:
Company style guides usually consist of two main sections: design and content. They outline how companies communicate through their visual brand—logos, colors, typography—as well as how they communicate through the written word.
What Is a Design Style Guide?
A design style guide, also known as a brand style guide, outlines a company’s brand identity. It serves as a resource that both internal and external designers can refer to when determining how to present the company’s brand to the public.
Design style manuals cover many details regarding their company’s brand, including:
Logo specifics (images, colors, typography, spacing)
A strong brand voice can identify your company as clearly as your logo does. Clear standards for tone can help you better reach your audience. With a writing style guide, you can create intentional voice and tone standards for your company.
What Is a Company Voice?
Having an intentional company voice allows you to communicate clearly with your customers and build trust. They learn to recognize the way you write and speak. That familiarity makes it easier for them to trust your expertise, products, services, and recommendations.
Your company voice should reflect your industry. For example, a law firm’s voice should be professional yet clear. They should communicate from a place of authority, but they should explain any legal terms they use to avoid confusing the reader. Too much sarcasm, humor, or lightheartedness could damage the brand.
What Is Tone?
You can also use your writing style guide to provide guidelines for tone.
Tone and voice work together to communicate a message. Your voice stays consistent no matter the type of writing, but your tone varies depending on the situation and the context of the piece.
Let’s say you have that law firm brand voice of professionalism and clarity. On social media, you can experiment with a more friendly tone. This allows you to be more fun and accessible to your audience in an appropriate context. You can use a friendly tone on Facebook and a direct tone in an email while still being consistent with your brand voice.
Consistent Spelling and Grammar
Most companies rely on a team of writers and marketers to create the content they need to communicate with their audience. Every writer or content creator has their own voice, style, and spelling and grammar preferences.
A content style guide creates a set of company spelling and grammar standards so every piece of content is consistent, regardless of the true author.
Writing style guides are particularly helpful for teams who are not physically in the office together. Whether you employ a team of freelancers or your in-house team has been forced to work from home, a content style guide serves as a resource your team can refer to as they create content, no matter where they are.
At Avalanche Creative, we believe that you can’t improve what you don’t measure. Content style manuals create a rubric of sorts from which to measure your company’s content.
By adopting a specific set of rules and guidelines, you set a quality standard for your content that your team can strive to meet. A writing style guide will help you create stronger content that reaches your audience and promotes your business.
How to Create a Style Guide in 5 Easy Steps
1. Choose a Formal Style Manual as a Base
Why reinvent the wheel? There are too many nuances to spelling and grammar to start your style guide from scratch. Choose an established style manual like AP Style or The Chicago Manual of Style to base your work on.
2. Add In-House Spelling & Grammar Guidelines
Your in-house operation will differ from formal style sheets in certain ways. It’s important to add your in-house spelling and grammar rules to make your own content style guide.
Add What’s Missing
First, determine what’s not included in the original stylebook that your company needs to address. Formal style sheets are updated infrequently and may not reflect the ever-changing nature of the English language.
For example, the COVID-19 pandemic generated a variety of new words, from “social distancing” to “super-spreader” to “COVID-19” itself. Will your company capitalize “COVID” in every use or just the first? Will you spell “doomscrolling” as one word, or will you add a hyphen? A formal style manual may not have the answer; it’s up to you to set the standard for your company.
Change What Doesn’t Fit
Remember that the formal style guide you choose is just that—a guide. Far from a fixed rule book, these guides can be altered to fit your company’s preferences.
At Avalanche Creative, we use AP Style as our base style guide. However, we make two key changes:
Oxford comma: We use the Oxford comma when listing a series. This helps avoid confusion (e.g., “I love my parents, Taylor Swift, and Ed Sheeran” means you love three separate entities, but, “I love my parents, Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran” can imply that your parents are Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran).
Singular “they”: AP Style has accepted using “they” as a singular person pronoun instead of using the clunky “he or she,” but still suggests trying to avoid it if you can. We accept all uses of singular “they.”
3. Describe Company Voice
Your style sheet is the perfect place to establish your company voice and offer advice for tone in various pieces of content, such as:
Social media posts
Emails to clients
Other website content
4. Address Industry Specifics
Many industries have specific terms or jargon that are unfamiliar to the average reader. Your content style manual is a great place to explain those terms and create standards for how and when those terms should be used.
Explaining concepts specific to your industry is helpful not only for your readers, but also for your writers. Whether you hire a new freelancer or add a new full-time employee to your team, it can be difficult to get them up to speed on all of the nuances of your industry.
With a content style guide on hand, new writers will have a resource to refer to that can educate them on your industry and allow them to communicate what they’ve learned to your customers and clients.
5. Incorporate SEO Standards
A content style sheet helps your team create stronger content, but it’s worthless if no one ever reads what you’ve written. That’s why incorporating search engine optimization (SEO) standards is a critical part of any company style guide.
By following basic SEO standards, you increase the likelihood that Google will connect searchers to your website for answers and potential products or services. Your content will set you apart as an expert that people can trust.
Address These SEO Topics with Your Content Style Guide
Content headers: Strengthen your content with headers and subheaders that follow SEO best practices.
Links: Specify when to link to external websites and which websites are high-quality sources worth including in your content. Don’t forget to also set up standards for when and how to link internally to blogs and pages already on your website.
Word counts: Avoid being penalized for thin content by enforcing healthy word count guidelines.
Images: Determine the optimal size for images on your website. Consider enforcing standards for alt text so your images are accessible.
4 Benefits of an Internal Style Guide
Reach your audience: An internal style sheet can help your team create content that your intended audience can find on Google and will actually read because it addresses their needs.
Establish your expertise: Having a consistent style allows you to show off your expertise. People will read your content and begin to rely on you as a trusted source for your industry.
Look professional: Typos and inconsistencies are not only distracting, but they can also actively damage your brand. Your company’s content should confirm your trustworthiness, not question it.
Increase your productivity: With the same set of guidelines to operate from, your team of writers and marketers can avoid common mistakes. This allows your writers to create content more quickly and avoid lengthy rounds of editing.
Free Style Guide Resources
Ready to create your company’s writing style sheet? Here are a few free resources to help you get started: