No business can escape content production: Having social media accounts, a blog, a website, and maybe even marketing materials is practically a requirement. Because of that, a style guide is an essential resource.
If your business has been producing content for a while, you’ve likely already noted some content preferences. Perhaps you’ve compiled them into a handy document that you can reference or share with your coworkers or employees. In that case, congratulations! You’ve created a style guide.
To put it simply, a style guide is a document that delineates a business’s content preferences, down to the nitty-gritty details.
A style guide may include:
- A brief description of the tone and voice the content should have. For example, a company building up its blog may want a fun, snappy tone that allows for slang, jokes, and GIFs, or it may want a tone that, while conversational, is professional and informative.
- A spelling and usage guide. List banned words or phrases (e.g., industry jargon that your business’s audience won’t understand), the preferred spelling of a word that has multiple accepted spellings (adviser or advisor?), the correct spelling and application of commonly misused words or phrases (home in on, not hone in on)…and so much more.
- Sections for grammar, punctuation, capitalization, syntax (aka sentence structure), and other sentence-level preferences. Copy-paste rules from common style guides such as The Associated Press Style Book (AP style) or The Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago style).
- Sections for the format or style of Tweets vs. blog posts vs. newsletters, etc.
Small to large companies can use a style guide to ensure that their written content is free of errors and consistent and represents the brand well. Employees will have an easier time creating on-brand content when they can reference this single source of truth. New hires can use a style guide to quickly onboard to creating content for the company.
A style guide helps to nip potential errors in the bud. And producing clean content is good business: One study found that women are 81 percent less likely to buy a product advertised with spelling or grammar errors, and 77 percent of men agree.
Using a style guide to ensure consistency throughout all content means that readers can adapt to a business’s unique editorial style and engage with content without stumbling over awkward phrasing.
It is super simple to start a style guide.
Don’t worry about adding every grammar rule you can think of. Simpy add a note that employees should reference a certain dictionary or style book, such as AP or Chicago, for spelling, grammar, etc. If over time you notice a recurring punctuation mistake, for example, simply copy-paste the punctuation rule that will correct it to your style guide.
When I create a new style guide for my clients, I ask them three things:
- Do you use the serial comma?
- How do you want to treat numbers?
- Do you use the singular “they”?
Those questions usually come up in most content pieces, and the answers lay the foundation for a business’s style.
For example, a business may follow AP style and decide to spell out numbers one through nine but use numerals for higher numbers. Or it may decide to spell out all numbers below 101, according to Chicago style. Or, if your business is in the tech industry, you may decide to use numerals for all numbers because it makes the most sense.
Gather your answers to those questions and add them to a Word or Google doc.
As I learn more about a company’s preferences, I’ll add them to the style guide in alphabetical order. Once the style guide becomes long enough, I’ll reorganize it into sections.
Hot tip: Designate one person at your business as the keeper of the style guide. A style guide should be continuously updated, and all employees can make suggestions for changes—but giving only one person the ability to make changes prevents contradictory additions and promotes consistency.
Need a style guide template to get started? I’ve created one that can easily be customized to your preferences, and it’s preloaded with rules to address the top errors I’ve seen in my years as a copy editor. Get it here.
Jamie Brockway has been a copy editor since 2014. She's worked for publications including The Wall Street Journal Magazine, Health, and The Atlantic, and she's the former national copy chief for Time Out North America. Now she edits multimedia content for a roster of independent authors and small to large businesses.