What Is a Style Guide and Why Do I Need One?

Aug 31, 2020

Written by Lorcan MacMuiris

A style guide is a ‘how to’ for speaking in your company’s voice, and a handy set of reminders to help you and your co-workers avoid some of the most common pitfalls that lie in wait for anyone who’s writing a professional document. Style guides allow you to set the tone for your company’s documentation and communications and can make a real difference to how you get your message across.

Using a style guide is a great way to ensure consistency across your documentation, no matter who’s writing it or why. It can be a little bewildering for a customer to see a document jump alarmingly from one style to another. Likewise, a document (or email or website) that’s replete with basic errors or inconsistencies can create a bad impression, damage your reputation, and undermine your message. After all, if a company doesn’t bother to check spelling, the customer might wonder what else in the document might not be accurate. A style guide can even help your ranking on web searches by creating more consistency and eliminating errors, aspects that are considered by services like Google when prioritising search results.

Consider how you’d write today’s date and ask yourself whether everyone working with you would agree. Say, for instance, that it’s the tenth day of April, 2020. Is it 10/04/2020? Is it 04-10-2020? Is it April 10, 2020 or should that be April 10th? 2020-04-10? 4.10.20? If your job requires a lot of back and forth between one side of the Atlantic and the other, at the very least you need to be sure that you’re talking about the tenth of April and not the fourth of October.

Equally, you may want to avoid certain terms, even if they don’t break any of the ‘official’ rules. Certain words or phrases may have negative connotations in your industry or marketplace, for instance. Some word choices may echo a competitor or remind your customers of a different company with a different focus. Some may present legal difficulties by giving the impression that your product or service is something it’s not or may simply open you up to being the butt of jokes on social media. You can’t depend on your staff to have thought of all of these potential pitfalls, especially if they’re new to the company or unfamiliar with the industry and your competitors.

What Does a Style Guide Do?

A good style guide is a multifunctional tool. It can help you to improve writing across every aspect of your company’s output, whatever your focus. Marketing materials, emails, internal reports, press releases, advertising, your website, your social media accounts, and more can all be improved by applying consistent rules. You get to decide what a lot of those rules are. This probably won’t apply to rules governing common punctuation (such as the question mark or the full stop) but you can have a lot of control over more discretionary aspects of writing. Your style guide can be used to dictate how your company approaches things like:

  • Capital letters: Some companies stylise their documentation by deliberately flouting the conventions of using capital letters at the beginning of a sentence or for proper nouns. Others push back in the opposite direction, using capitals for the names of services, processes, or departments which may not usually need a capital letter.
  • Tone of voice: Compare the different writing styles of Innocent Smoothies and the corporate arm of their parent company, Coca-Cola. The two approaches to style are radically different. That’s thanks to well-defined guides which help to give the Innocent brand its distinctive written identity.
  • The company policy towards ‘finicky’ punctuation: Do you use the serial comma? Does your company have a policy on the semicolon? How do you handle hyphens?
  • ‘Official’ terminology and the use of abbreviations: Is it a PIN or a PIN code? (It should never be a PIN number!) Are you sure that your acronyms or abbreviations will be widely understood?
  • Pronouns: Do you use “she” and “he” or stick to the more neutral “they”?
  • UK vs US spelling conventions: This is a particularly important consideration if your product or service is advertised internationally.

How Long Should a Style Guide Be?

A guide for your company doesn’t have to be a long, complicated effort. Some professional style guides, such as the Chicago Manual of Style, can be well over 1,000 pages long, but a guide of four or five pages is sufficient for most companies. You may even have all you need in a quick, two-page cheat sheet, which can be pinned to a noticeboard for easy reference. The most important element is consistency; once you’ve chosen a style, your entire company must stick to it in order to speak with one voice.

TWi can help you to create or hone a style guide. Contact us to find out more.


Images Used

  • Image by Mark Fletcher-Brown, licensed by Unsplash
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