Why you need a style guide

I’m a member of The Clever Copywriting School community. It’s an excellent group of copywriters, many of them small business owners who have learned through their freelance experience. This leads to many questions that can be answered with a style guide.

What’s a style guide?

If you’re like these copywriters and haven’t come across a style guide, it’s a set of language and word choice rules that fits your organisation. It’s so you can always remember when to use setup versus set-up, or even set up. And should that be italicised? It’s hard to remember all your rules and some may only apply to your business or client. These are the same guides you may have used in university, but are for a little more than just formatting references.

In Australia, I’m seeing more organisations using a house style guide. It’s often just a Word document with all the details. It’s written and managed by the organisation and because of that, it’s perfectly tailored to the organisation. Also, because of that, it’s a lot of work. I prefer using a mainstream style guide, like the Australian Government one or AP in the United States, and supplement it with a house style guide.

Creating a style guide is a lot of work and none of us have time for that. A good starting point is to use an existing style guide and supplement it with a house style guide.

Where to find a style guide?

Large news organisations and governments produce style guides for their team members, contractors and anyone who wants to work with them. They make these available for anyone to use, and some hope their styles become the default. If you’re submitting media releases, using the media organisations’ style guides means some of the journalism is done and they’re more likely to publish your release. You need to pay for some style guides.

Government style guides

It’s a little unfair of me to say government style guides when I’ve only used the Australian federal government’s guide. That said, it’s excellent. It was only in print for a long time and went a stretch without updates. Now it’s online, free, searchable, and incredibly detailed. I particularly love the inclusive language section, but the punctuation and content types sections are useful.

Media organisation style guides

These vary in detail and use, but can be useful. And more than just if you’re writing for that organisation.

AP Style Book

The AP Style is the most widely adopted media style guide, I’ve seen. It’s from the Associated Press, but used by most organisation in the United States. It’s conversational and approachable enough. I recommend getting a web subscription unless you want to start looking for spacing around an em dash and end up in a rabbit’s warren, discovering why Mother’s Day can only acknowledge one mother.

Buzzfeed’s Style Guide

I feel I should place others above Buzzfeed but the Buzzfeed style guide is current. I mean really current. You’ll find the most inclusive language I’ve ever seen in a listing and also modern slang. It’s definitely not corporate, but still covers lots of the more traditional stuff. If you want to know some of the early decision-making, their chief editor, at the time, wrote about it.

Other media organisation style guides

I haven’t used these and they may have varying usefulness. The News Corp guide was required in my PR degree, but it was print and I can’t find it now. Admittedly, I didn’t look very hard and it wasn’t very useful.

What’s in a house style guide?

As said, house style guides fill the gaps and document the rules for your organisation. They can be as simple as a Word document, or a fully designed publication. Both are OK, as long as they work for you. I generally start with these headings and add to it as I go. If you’re in a team, I recommend setting some rules for who gets final say and how things are decided. A former colleague (and current friend) and I spent a week arguing the “correct” phone number format. We couldn’t decide so chose to use AP Style and neither of us got our preferred format.

Language and dictionary

What’s your preferred language? There are many forms of English and all are correct. At Oracle, we have a global audience, so use US English, even my product’s audience is mostly Australia. Then choose your dictionary. The differences are rare and slight, but it’s easiest to set a standard before you have conflict.

Style guide and hierarchy

If you’re using an existing style guide, which one is it? Then which gets priority? While a house style guide gets used to fill the gaps, sometimes it’s in reverse and writers should start with the house guide and fill the gaps with something like AP.

Tone of voice

Are you formal or a more casual organisation? A most conversational voice with contractions and plain English can help gets your writing read and acted on. However, increased complexity is sometimes needed to appear more authoritative for some audiences. Language complexity is also a good inclusion.

Punctuation and grammar rules

If there are any specific or special punctuation or grammar rules, record them here so everyone knows to use them. These could be because they differ from your style guide, or just to make them easier to reference. Don’t forget to include numbers too.

Branded terms

Google’s legal team would prefer us not to say we’re “googling” something. Do you have any rules for your branded term? You can’t abbreviate the organisation name? Or no acronyms? Maybe you have an acronym, but it shouldn’t be said as a word. Write them all done to avoid confusion later.

Glossary and special words

This may be the largest section and usually at the end. List the industry-specific terms you’ll need, their definitions and any formats. Yes, this is kind of your organisation’s dictionary. At a previous organisation the People and Culture team asked me to include wellbeing. It was mostly used internally, but they were tired of seeing a mix of wellbeing, well-being and well being. Now I include localisations of construction terms. Then I can remember to use the different terms to ensure all my audience understands, even if the US and UK terminology differs.

Great house style guides

Finally, some organisations choose to make their house style guides public. I love these ones.

Photo by Amelia Bartlett on Unsplash

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