Alexander Santo

A writing style guide is a reference resource for editorial content creators. It helps people within your organization, as well as freelancers, to develop written content that aligns with your brand values and mission. Style guides support your efforts to provide a consistent customer experience across all communication channels.

Why your brand needs a writing style guide

Brands typically have two main style guides: one for branded visuals and another for editorial content. Approximately 90% of polled companies say that consistency is important to their public brand. Style guides ensure that current and prospective customers have a consistent experience with your brand whether they’re reading a blog post, watching a video or interacting with your social media content.

Whenever you produce marketing content for your brand, you need to adhere to your style guides. This includes when you outsource content production to an agency or freelancers.

But don’t think of your style guides as an official decree that never expires. Your brand needs to evolve along with the times to stay fresh and relevant. While the basic rules of grammar are unlikely to change, certain words, phrases and other elements of style may transform over the years. Therefore, think of your writing style guide as a living document that chronicles your brand personality. It is a reference point and guiding light for your writers, but one that allows for creative freedom.

What a writing style guide is not

A writing style guide is not like an employee handbook — it shouldn’t be overly long, and it does not need to cover every possible issue writers may encounter. In fact, your guide probably shouldn’t be more than 5 pages in length. Any longer and you risk bogging down your writers with too many rules — they’ll be so focused on adhering to the style that your content could suffer.

Likewise, your style guide is not the place to teach people about the basics of grammar. You should hire writers who already know the fundamentals. That goes for company policies, too. Unless your brand frequently produces content about sensitive topics, you don’t need to include guidance about topics about discrimination or inclusivity — save those topics for your employee manual.

Style manuals: A starting point

Here’s some good news: You don’t need to build your brand style entirely from scratch. Instead, you should choose an established style manual as a starting point. Editorial guidelines specific to your brand should branch off the trunk of the style manual, allowing your brand to take on a personality of its own.

So, which style manual should you use? Let’s take a look at the most popular options:

  • AP Stylebook: Designed for American journalists, AP style provides guidelines for grammar and citations. It is used by most media outlets in the U.S.
  • MLA Handbook: Developed by the Modern Language Association, MLA style is commonly used in academic writing and focuses on the aesthetic production and reception of scholarly inquiry.
  • Chicago Manual of Style: Created by the University of Chicago, the goal of Chicago Style is to help writers to properly cite sources and clarify meaning for readers.
  • The Elements of Style: This short style guide is intended to produce writing that is easy to understand, active and free of unnecessary details.

If you’re struggling to choose one, we recommend the AP Stylebook. Most readers are familiar with this style, even if they’ve never heard of it. Plus, it’s very accessible to people of all reading levels.

8 steps to create a writing style guide that uplifts your brand

As you create your content style guide, be sure to involve multiple stakeholders at your company. The best way to make sure people actually use your guide is to get their input during the drafting process. Here’s how to get started:

1. Review your brand values and mission statement

Whenever you develop any guidelines around our brand, it’s important to return to your main source of inspiration: your company’s values and mission. This will help you define your editorial personality. The way your brand speaks to its customers will depend on a variety of factors, and your editorial style plays a huge part in how your tone is perceived.

2. Define your editorial style and tone

Your editorial style guide is intended to help multiple writers produce content that is unified in a way that reflects your brand values and relates to your target audience. For example, B2C brands usually seek to show that they understand customer needs and relate on a personal level. B2B brands, on the other hand, are typically more formal and demonstrate thought leadership.

Use adjectives that describe your brand personality. For example:

  • B2C brand: “Our brand is conversational and isn’t afraid to be funny. We are unapologetically authentic, but never crass. We laugh with our customers, never at them. Our authenticity means we care about our customers and the issues that affect them at a social and emotional level.”
  • B2B brand: “Our brand is objective and we’re not afraid to be controversial when we’re pushing against the barriers found within our industry. We’re sophisticated, but not egotistical. Our confidence comes from experience, which includes both successes and failures. We’re always learning and we use our expertise to benefit our clients.”

3. Address common spelling and grammar issues

Be sure to note any exceptions your brand makes that divert from your chosen style manual. For example, the AP Stylebook advises against using serial commas, also known as the Oxford comma, but you might choose to use it anyway.

Other common grammar guidelines include:

  • Abbreviations: You might require writers to spell out phrases on the first mention and abbreviate on the second reference. Or, you might include the abbreviation in parentheses upon the first mention.
  • Capitalizations: Make a note of any non-standard capitalizations or lowercase words.
  • Passive and active voice: Provide examples of when passive voice is acceptable to use.
  • Bulleted lists: Will you always end list items with a period, or only when they are full sentences?
  • Quotation marks: Single or double quotes?
  • Hyphens: Is it OK to use an em dash or a hyphen for parenthetical phrases? Should you hyphenate phrasal adjectives?

4. Include branded words and phrases

Always include branded words in your style guide. Make a note of any usual spellings or capitalizations. For example, your brand name might be lowercase in logo form, but use a capital letter when written out. This is where consistency is crucial, so don’t leave any room for interpretation here.

5. Provide examples of how to speak to different buyer personas

If your brand speaks to multiple buyer personas, or operates in several global markets, you’ll need to note important differences. These could include spellings (e.g. color vs colour) or they could be a matter of tone. For example, a software company might use more technical language when writing content for developers, and more informal language when developing content for end-users.

6. Explain how editorial text complements branded visuals

Oftentimes, editorial content will appear alongside branded visual elements, such as in an advertisement, eBook or infographic. While it’s not necessary to fully detail your visual style guidelines here, make a note of anything that will help writers to collaborate with visual designers. For example, it’s helpful to note how many words can fit on each page of your white paper template.

7. Create a ‘do not mention’ list

Make a list of topics that writers should never mention. Many brands make a point to never mention politics or religion, for example. It may also be a good idea to provide guidance for when those topics are unavoidable. In some cases, you’ll need to consult with your company’s legal team to understand any applicable restrictions.

8. Offer examples of approved sources

Provide a list of approved resources — or at least types of resources. For example, you might tell your writers that it’s OK to use content from .edu and .gov websites only. Also make sure to develop a consistent citation style. On the web, a hyperlink will usually suffice, but you may also want to include a bibliography at the end of certain pieces of writing. Create examples of citations so your writers don’t need to figure it out for themselves.

Make your style guide accessible

Your editorial style guide can be simple. Some companies have a simple text document that explains the basics. However, you should consider designing your writing guide so it is easy to understand at a glance. Then, make sure it is easy to access — put it on your company’s intranet or in an otherwise central location where writers can reference it as needed.

To help your content developers, your content style guide shouldn’t stand alone. It should accompany other reference materials such as visual style guides, buyer personas, industry research and any other resources that might provide insight into your customers and your market.