Why and how to craft an in-house style guide

Every organization should have documented guidelines for writers and editors for all content. Beyond promoting consistency, it can help keep your people from misrepresenting the brand.

When I join an organization or take on a new content marketing client, one of my first tasks is to draft a content style guide if there isn’t one in place.

Why? Because it’s one of the most important tools for keeping all your organization’s content creators on voice and on message.

Without it, you’ll find you are destined to spend more of your time than you’d like making edits and requesting revisions to the content your internal and external writers create.

Wouldn’t you rather spend that extra time working on amplifying the terrific content your team is creating?

The benefits

For writers, a content style guide details how to approach the content they’re creating.

It increases their likelihood of getting back a few notes and suggestions instead of a mess of red-lined edits and exasperated editor’s notes about style points they are tired of repeating.

It also ensures that, even though your content is created by a team of writers, it all still reflects your carefully crafted brand voice.

Despite its utility, it can feel a little daunting to start your content style guide from scratch. Luckily, you don’t have to do so.

Content style guide elements

The Content Marketing Institute has shared its content style guide; so has MailChimp.

Personally, all my style guides include the following nine elements:

  • General spelling and punctuation rules
  • Brand voice attributes
  • Brand-specific terminology
  • Business and tech terms
  • Logo, typography and brand colors
  • Leadership team
  • Boilerplate
  • Formatting best practices and templates
  • Citing sources

General spelling and punctuation rules

Although your content team might have a few grammar sticklers who can diagram sentences with ease, many of them probably won’t remember all the ins and outs.

Then there are words with a variety of frequent (not always correct) spellings.

In this section I include high-level grammar rules, frequently misspelled words and preferred spellings.

If the organization is international, it’s also helpful to include words that may have different connotations in different regions or countries .

Brand voice attributes

Which three terms do you use to define your brand’s voice? How do those attributes affect how writers should approach the content they create?

If you haven’t defined your brand voice, check out the CMI blog post I wrote on my process for defining and using your brand voice.

Include your brand voice chart here, and link to specific examples of content that reflect the voice attributes.

Brand-specific terminology

Is there a specific term your users call themselves? What’s your official conference name?

These are all included here, along with your official product names, noting any registered or trademarked names.

I additionally include the up-to-date list of the top 10 SEO keywords in this section.

Business and tech terms

Inevitably, you have approvers with strong opinions about industry terminology, including spelling and capitalization.

This is where you capture all those preferences, plus any phrases or words to avoid using, such as guru.

A few examples of terms I frequently include in my content style guides:

  • C-Suite (note capitalization)
  • company names are singular. (Deloitte is, not Deloitte are)
  • millennial (lowercase)
  • SlideShare (note capitalization)

Logo, typography and brand colors

Consider these questions:

  • Which fonts should be used for your website content?
  • What about print materials and presentation decks?
  • Where can your official logo(s) be downloaded?
  • What are your official brand colors and their hex equivalents?

This section alone can save you hundreds of repetitive emails per year.

Leadership team

Is your website updated immediately to reflect leadership changes? Chances are it’s not.

Including a list of your key leadership team members, with their preferred names and titles, is important for maintaining consistency across your content and communications efforts.

You can even use this list to track whose bio is present on or missing from the website.

Boilerplate

Corporate messaging has a tendency to become quickly outdated, with multiple team members saving different versions of it to their hard drives.

It’s no wonder that every conference program and sponsorship bio ends up using completely different language.

Nip that in the bud by including the most-used pieces of boilerplate in your content style guide and hyperlinking to the full messaging documentation.

Be sure to include:

  • Vision
  • Mission
  • Tagline
  • Brief or one-line description.
  • 50-word description (frequently used in conference guides)
  • PR boilerplate (as it should appear on all news releases)

Content style guide formatting best practices and templates

Do you use initial caps or sentence case for your blog headlines and email subject lines? Are you OK with writers’ using “click here” in their copy? What do you consider to be good alt text?

Specify your best practices for these issues and more, and link to any templates you have.

I typically have blog post and email templates that I link to from this section, to provide writers with guidance to ensure consistency in brand communications.

Citing sources

It drives me bats to see poorly sourced—or unsourced—statistics and claims in copy. If you’re writing a blog post, link to the source in your body copy.

In other situations, you’ll want to include a more formal citation. Don’t assume your writers have experience with sourcing; instead, give them examples of what constitutes a good citation. At a minimum, include how to source a blog post and a website.

Here are my examples for these citations:

With the above elements in place, you have a solid foundation for a robust and useful content style guide to help your content and communications teams spend less time tracking down frequently used information, while creating increased consistency in your branded content.

What else would you include in your ideal content style guide? Please offer your suggested entries in the comments.

Erika Heald is chief content officer for Spin Sucks, where a version of this article first appeared.

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