As a freelancer, I work with lots of different clients across multiple industries every day. This can make it a little difficult to remember the specifics of each client when I'm creating or editing a new piece. I end up with a lot of small, nit-picking questions. Does this client use the Oxford comma or are they the one that doesn't? What company was I supposed to avoid mentioning again? Is this the right shade of blue for this email header? Does this client prefer first or third-person content for their blog, and is it different for emails? What sort of feature image does this client usually opt for?
While I love having open lines of communication with my clients, I also hate having to send a million messages to ask tiny questions as I come across them. That's why style guides are my saving grace; when a client hands me a style guide, I know they have their brand together and know exactly what they want from me, which makes my life and the lives of my fellow writers and editors significantly easier.
Does your company have a style guide? If not, it's definitely worth investing the time into creating, as it can help your brand be more professional in appearance and functional in media production.
What is a Style Guide?
A style guide is a document that a person or company uses to make sure that all of the writing and graphic work done for them is uniform and up to their standards. Style guides detail everything you need to know about a brand's voice, tone, grammar preferences, and legal obligations.
This document might include things like:
The company's official logo and naming conventions (what's capitalized, if a trademark or copyright symbol needs to be present, etc.)
Which fonts are appropriate to use for titles, headings, and body text
Which colors fit in the brand palette
Appropriate examples of authorial voice (active voice versus passive, use of "I," "you," or "we" when referring to the author of a piece, etc.)
Appropriate tone for branded materials (conversational, formal, business-to-business, etc.)
Allied brands to mention in content or collaborate with
Brands to avoid mentioning in content
How to Create a Style Guide
Knowing what goes into a style guide is great, but how do you put it all together? How do you find all of the information you need and make it readable? Here's what you need to know.
Research Your Brand's Voice
The first step to creating a style guide is to research your own brand. Look into any marketing materials you've already put out, and any blogs you've already written. If you're an author, look at your books. Some questions you can ask yourself are
What does your name or logo look like? Is it consistent across your brand - on your own website, on your social media, in your emails?
What colors do you use in your branding? Do you have a consistent color scheme or palette?
How do you capitalize and punctuate your product names, characters, or place names? Is it consistent across your brand?
Take notes on what you find. If you're being consistent already, great! If not, note down all of the different styles you use; we'll come back to that.
Create a List
Now that you've got a rough idea of what your company's existing voice is, it's time to define. Take all of your notes and organize them into categories:
Visuals and formatting
Specific do's and don'ts
In "overall voice," put what general tone - conversational, professional, informal or formal, etc. - your copy and images should take on, as well as basic biographical and press information about your company like your logo, a short description, and main press contacts. In "visuals and formatting," include your color palette, fonts, and specifics for formatting titles. In "grammar specifics," put your company's policies on capitalization, punctuation, and spelling. In "specific do's and don'ts," put the topics you endorse, companies you work with, taboo topics, and the companies you don't want to mention. Everything else goes in "miscellaneous."
Expand and Explain
The list you've just created is now your style guide outline. Now that you have that, it's time to add in all of the small details. Give specific examples of everything, explain why your company made the choices they did, and explain where someone using this guide can get help if they have questions about it. Your job once you have the major points out of the way is to explain them in a way that makes it easy for any competent writer, especially someone with no background with your company, to pick it up and immediately create a piece that could be posted to your company's media channels with minimal editing.
Top tip? If you think you're explaining too much or giving too much detail, you're doing it right. It's better to have too many specifics you don't necessarily need than to not have the information you need at all.
How to Use a Style Guide
Congratulations, you now have a functional style guide! Now you can put it to use. But how exactly is a style guide used? Mainly, it's used internally for reference and training of new writers.
Reference and Training
Generally, the main purpose of a style guide is to provide a source of reference for writers, editors, formatters, and others who deal with writing of any kind for a company. Keeping an updated style guide that everyone either has a copy of or access to ensures that everyone can be responsible for their own first-step editing, making the pipeline from writing to publishing much smoother.
Style guides are especially useful tools when you bring a new writer or editor onto your team. They provide essentially a cheat sheet for them to use for their first few projects until they're used to the writing style and can adapt their work to your company's voice. This means that you don't need to spend nearly as much time stopping and explaining small details of grammar or branding during training and can instead focus on their overall responsibilities and daily workflow, meaning training itself can be shorter and more efficient.
Updating Your Style Guide
If you're going to be using your style guide to train others and as a reference material, it needs to be up-to-date with your company's standards. I'd recommend revisiting and updating your style guide at least once a year if not every six months. This gives you a chance to ensure that all of your training and content is consistent without being nit-picky. It also gives your writers the opportunity to discuss any comments or concerns they have about the guide so that it can be improved and function as efficiently as possible.
When updating your style guide, read through it completely, make notes on any changes you need to make, ask your team for input and suggestions, make your changes, and then redistribute the style guide with a message highlighting those changes. This keeps everyone on the same page, makes sure everyone has an updated copy of the style guide, and gives you a record to go back to the next time you need to update it.
By creating and implementing a style guide, you can make sure your brand is consistent, which can really help your marketing succeed and keep you looking sharp in all your professional communications.
It may take some time and effort to research and organize all the necessary information, but the benefits are worth it. A well-crafted style guide can save time and confusion, and help maintain the integrity of your brand. So, grab a cup of coffee (or tea, if you're more like me) and get started.