While this much-loved slogan is apt for a popular casual eatery, your content team should not operate like an Outback Steakhouse. Rules – compiled in a comprehensive writing style guide – are essential to uniting departments, eliminating guesswork, and creating a cohesive online presence.
Rules don’t always ruin the fun. In the case of a writing style guide, they actually free writers to focus less on the logistics and more on the fun part: creativity! Here’s everything you need to know about style guides: what they are, what to include in them, why you need them, and how to create them.
What Is a Content Style Guide?
A content style guide is a compilation of the rules that determine the look, sound, and overall impression of your personal written brand. The goal is to achieve consistency and elevate your voice above the noise of your competitors.
Touching upon the consistency aspect first, this pertains to your style guide of choice. The AP Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style are generally the stylebooks that form the basis of a company’s style guide. From there, most decide to customize it to the preferences of the writing team or the quirks of the brand’s established style. For example, if the company prefers the rules of Chicago Style but the blog historically doesn’t use serial commas, it’s ok to omit that specific rule.
What’s most important is consistency! It’s not just eagle-eyed readers and off-duty editors who’ll sniff out inconsistencies in your online style and judge you for it. Variant spellings and formatting could come across as sloppy and turn off a prospective client. For example, standardize your formatting so all your bulleted lists look the same. Clean and consistent copy is a sign of respect to your audience and shows personal pride in your brand.
Your brand voice also benefits from a content style guide. When every in-house writer, freelancer, and guest author writes following the same set of rules, your brand voice will come through loud and clear. Every author should have their own unique perspective and expertise. Their personalities should shine, but they should be variations on the same theme; the theme being the brand’s overarching identity.
What Do You Include in a Style Guide?
Ideally, you’ll spread your style guide far and wide to anyone working remotely close to your content or brand voice in any medium. Contributors may be professional writers. Or, they may be writing for the public for the first time. In addition to your brand personality and voice guidelines, add in general writing, formatting, and search engine optimization tips too.
For instance, grammar FAQs are helpful to new writers. In your style guide, include easy-to-follow tips on how to avoid the passive voice, acceptable industry-specific abbreviations, inclusive language pointers, tense guidelines, how to correctly use semicolons, best practices for dashes versus parentheses, etc.
Since you should closely link SEO and content marketing, add SEO best practices and SEO minimum requirements to your writing style guide. This includes heading hierarchy, meta description rules, tips on how to naturally include keywords within the copy, crosslinking strategy, and more.
Finally, it’ll do your editing corps a huge favor when you remind writers to proofread their work. Make sure to include proofreading as a step in the writing process. Add a few self-editing tips, such as:
- Read drafts aloud
- Review articles on different font sizes. Line breaks are a common place for typos or missing words to go undiscovered.
- Double check all links and the spelling of people’s names
The less guesswork and editor-writer back-and-forth necessary to create a quality piece of content, the quicker you can get content out the door and in front of your audience.
How Do You Make a Style Guide?
A style guide requires buy-in from every department and should get sign-off from the c-suite. To start, it’s best to begin with the first drafts with the people closest to the content and your established brand voice: your internal marketing and content teams. These people are also familiar with the most common questions new employees or new writers have concerning the brand voice, style, etc.
Then, whether you’re a B2B or B2C company, loop in the product teams. It’s important to record how writers should describe the various products and the approved language they can use to do so. Even for content that doesn’t mention products or services specifically, it’s still important that the content touches on topics that your company helps its customers address.
Make sure to consult your legal team when creating a writing style guide. They can offer further guidance on words and phrases you can use (but more often words and phrases you CANNOT use). For example, some superlatives, adjectives, and claims may be off limits like, “Our service will guarantee your safety.” This sentence could potentially land you in hot water.
Finally, run your nearly finalized style guide across the desks of your c-suite, especially the CMO. Executives should have a clear brand identity and voice they’d like to come through every piece of paid, earned, and owned media.
Should You Trust Style Guide Creation to an Agency?
It’s absolutely safe to trust an agency to create of writing style guide! In fact, an agency may give you the outside view you need to evaluate and build off your current style. A good agency partner will highlight the unique aspects of your corporate voice and craft a rulebook that reflects your point of view.
Additionally, an agency can be the guardians of your style guide. Your style may change over time or you may add a new product or service or you may think of a new rule you’d like everyone to follow. A writing style guide should be a living document. An agency can remind your teams to revisit it every six months or so and assist in making changes.
Working with an agency is like having a dozen subject matter experts on speed dial: digital marketers, content marketers, copywriters, editors, brand advisors, and more. So, before you get started refurbishing your content or embarking on a completely new content endeavor, consider partnering with an agency to set you up for years of consistent, clean, and cohesive copy, thanks to a clear set of writing rules.