Today, I want to talk about style guides. These short guides - often as short as one side of paper - provide a framework and structure for how you write. They provide the answer to questions as you progress through your writing. They make sure that what you’re writing is consistent with what you’ve written before, and what you’re going to write in the future.
Style guides are often overlooked by small businesses and startups, but I believe that they are - and should be - core to every company’s content and marketing strategies.
What does a style guide look like?
The appearance of a style guide will vary from place to place and use to use. In some places, it will be a large multi-page document or website outlining the minutiae of how things are written and laid out. In others, it will be a single page (called a Style Sheet) briefly outlining editorial decisions and layout guidelines.
A style guide is a set of standards for the writing and design of documents.
Depending on the work you do, your style guide may look vastly different. At its core, a style guide is a set of standards for the writing and design of documents. For some, these “documents” will be literal documents - perhaps a contract, an essay, or a blog post. For others, they will be more figurative - the UI of an application, the notifications you send, or the micro-copy you put at the end of emails.
No matter its appearance, a style guide is vitally important when structuring, writing and presenting content and copy for yourself, your startup, or your business.
Why is a style guide important?
Why exactly is a style guide important when writing? What does it bring to the process? In short, a style guide brings consistency. But, as is often the case, the longer answer is a bit more complicated than that.
As I said earlier, a style guide is a set of standards for a written document. Normally, these standards are focussed on how content is structured, written, and laid out. Together they bring a level of consistency to everything you write.
These standards are created by asking your self questions about how you write, and looking at the evidence of what you’ve written before. By thinking a little about how you write and how you’ve written, you’re able to turn patterns into standards that create the foundations for your style guide.
Usually, when starting to write a style guide, you’ll find yourself asking a lot of questions.
The question may be “Do I use an oxford/serial comma? If so, when do I use it?”. Now, you could ask this question each and every time you come across the situation, and you’ll likely find that each time, with what’s happening around you in that moment, you come up with a different answer and different reasons, or you could sit for a moment, think about the usage across the broader spectrum, and make a decision that you can then put in your style guide.
Now, when you have this question in the future, you can quickly check what was decided before, and run with that rule. If you have a team of people writing content, then they can refer to the guide to see how it has been set - in the standards - and follow that rule too.
Quickly and easily, you end up with a more consistent style of writing across your company, brand, and product. Unifying everything.
Consistency in communication is key to communicating effectively and getting your point across. By changing your message with every person who writes it down, you allow inconsistency to creep in; muddying your message and making things less clear.
By implementing and deciding on a set of standards in your style guide, you set a framework - a backbone, you could say - to your writing and the writing of others. This framework keeps communication consistent, which means that it is more effective and clearer.
It may be that you have a specific way of describing your products. Apple, for example, always uses their product names in copy as if they were people’s names. You will never see “The iPhone is the best smartphone”, you’ll see “iPhone is the best smartphone”.
By making this decision once, and incorporating it into their style guide, Apple is able to keep a consistent tone and message across their products. This means that no matter where you see content produced by Apple, it’s consistent and clear that it’s produced by them.
You’ll also notice that they always use iPhone. Never i-Phone, Iphone, or anything else. This is important to their business, and outlining it in their style guide means that it’s consistent.
Improved production speed
A quick and easy tip for increasing productivity and content creation speed - remove variables and questions. Easy, right?
Well, with a style guide, it is. By removing uncertainty and time wasted thinking about “Do we use this form or this?” or “How do we say this?”, you’re able to greatly increase the speed of content creation, boosting productivity.
When I’ve worked with companies who have no established style guide, we’re constantly pausing and asking questions about what we’re writing and where we’re going. We often spend more time debating whether to use a serial comma, or how to word a product feature, than we do actually writing the words.
In a task like writing, where flow is vitally important, these breaks can kill creativity. By having a style guide, which contains these answers, you’re able to quickly answer questions and get back to what you were doing.
But what about my blog?
This is a question that comes up quite often: “But what about my blog?”. And it’s a valid question.
When writing content for your marketing website, press releases, or UI, it makes sense to have a set of rules that dictate what you say, and the tone with which you say it. When writing a blog, you’ll likely want to have more personality come through in the writing, especially if a range of people are writing content for it. And that’s fine.
In these instances, the style guide continues to act as a guide. It informs the writer about how you say things and the decisions that have been made across the board. They can use these decisions to inform their writing, whilst allowing their own personality to come through as well.
If your style guide includes standards for how you write your product name or features, for example, this is particularly important when creating blog content, as you don’t want to add confusion by writers using their own terms or marks.
Looking for inspiration?
A variety of companies have started making their style guides open to the public, so that you can learn from them and improve your writing.
MailChimp, the email sender of choice for most digital businesses, recently updated their style guide. MailChimp has a very modern approach to their writing, with injections of humour where necessary. Whilst this is an example of a large style guide, there are lessons to be learnt by anyone looking to adopt a style guide for their business.
Wikipedia, the free online encyclopaedia, publishes its style guide to ensure that articles written for it are of a certain style and calibre. Whilst this may not be the best fit for your product, it gives you an idea of what a style guide can include.
A variety of other style guides are available for free online or for commercial purchase. These include ones from Yahoo, The Associated Press, The Chicago Manual of Style, and more. Whilst adopting one of these style guides can help you produce a consistent message, it’s better to create your own - tailored to you and your business - than adopt one from someone with a different style.
When Should I Make A Style Guide?
This is a hard question to answer, as it will depend on you, your business, your product, your content production quantities, and much more. I’ll try to answer this in a way that’s useful to the majority of people in another post, but if you’re uncertain about whether or not it’s the right time, we can always have a chat or find me on twitter.