A writing style guide is essential for any business — especially if there are multiple content writers on the team.
As you create more and more content on your website and blog, inconsistencies are bound to creep in. One reason? Lack of clarity about the style in which you'd like to write in. Disjointed communication across the multitude of content creators in your organization can be a culprit, too.
Either way, failure to decide upon accepted editorial guidelines is a recipe for inconsistent messaging. That's why at some point, most companies will need to develop a writing style guide.
What is a writing style guide?
A writing style guide is a document that sets standard writing, grammar, and punctuation conventions for a particular organization in the effort of maintaining a consistent tone and style regardless of how many content contributors are on the team.
A writing style guide indicates the basic rules of writing everyone agrees to follow to ensure consistency across all content, like whether you should capitalize the "a" after the colon.
Note: If you write content for HubSpot, you should not capitalize the "a."
But wait... if that's the case, why would I capitalize the "If" in that last parenthetical? Because "If you write content for HubSpot, you should..." is a complete sentence, thus warranting the capital "If."
These conventions are specified in our writing style guide.
If you found that train of thought terribly banal, you might think writing style guides are the most boring things in the world and have a burning desire to click away right about now. Au contraire, mon frère.
Why Writing Guides Are Important
A writing style guide saves you from finding yourself embroiled in a debate about whether there should be spaces before and after an ellipses, whether you capitalize "for" in a title, or when a number must be written out in full.
If the writing style guide bores you, just imagine how insipid that debate will be. The existence of a style guide means you can simply have the style guide handy as your little writing rulebook without having to sit through debates about blockquotes.
Style Guide vs. Brand Guide
A writing style guide is a set of standards brands use to define how to maintain a consistent tone and voice through written content. A brand guide defines design elements — logos, typography, color palettes — to create consistency in brand image and visuals.
Both guides are different in content but the same in function. They play an important role in how potential consumers view, interact, and remember your company.
In an effort to help you get started with your own style guide, this blog post will walk you through how to create a writing style guide and which essential elements you’ll need to include.
How to Create a Writing Style Guide
- Review your brand’s mission and values.
- Create buyer personas for your target audience.
- Define your company’s voice and tone.
- Outline branded words and phrases.
- Establish guidelines for formatting.
- Use a style guide template.
Before we dive into the important elements you’ll need to include in your writing style guide, let’s talk through the steps of creating one. Your guide should reflect your business, its goals, and your target audience. To start, you’ll need to:
1. Review your brand’s mission and values.
Why did you start your business? What is its purpose? These are two important questions that you ask yourself when you start planning and building your company. If you didn’t, ask them now. Define your mission statement. Outline your brand’s core values. This information will guide how you form your connections with your audience. It will allow you to develop an idea for how you plan to communicate with them.
Your brand’s mission and values should guide your decisions and ensure that you’re actively working towards your goal. They define and influence company culture by guiding your business to make decisions that are beneficial to the company and your customers.
It is important to note that this information can change. In fact, it should. As time goes on and your company evolves, it is necessary to review and update your brand mission and values to accurately reflect your current business model and operations.
2. Create buyer personas for your target audience.
To create your writing style guide, you need to know who you’re talking to. Imagine having one conversation with a baby boomer and another with a millennial. The way you communicate with them will likely be different. Those nuances speak to the importance of creating buyer personas.
A buyer persona is a semi-fictional, research-based representation of your target customer. This information should come from market research as well as actual data from your existing customers. When creating your buyer personas, envision your ideal customer. What are their days like? How do they make decisions? What challenges do they face? Ultimately, your buyer persona should look at customer demographics, behavior patterns, motivations, and goals.
Once you identify your target audience and their buyer personas, you will have a better idea of how to approach communication.
3. Define your company’s voice and tone.
Establishing your company’s voice and tone can be challenging because the two concepts are easily confused.
Your company voice is how you want to be perceived by your audience. It encompasses how your brand messaging will be delivered. Do you want to come across as witty or friendly? For example, while Starbucks' brand voice is expressive, Coca-Cola’s is positive. When defining your voice, remember that this will not change throughout your writing. If you establish your company as “friendly,” it should be incorporated into all of your messaging.
Although your brand voice should stay the same, your tone might change. The brand tone refers to how you plan to express your voice. The subtleties in tone lie completely with who your audience is. Imagine a friend asks if you want to join them for dinner, and you reply “Okay.” Cultural cues would likely have them thinking that you’re not too keen on attending. However, if you responded with “Definitely!” they might think you’re excited to go. Even though both responses show that you are willing to eat dinner with them, the connotation changes between words.
As you build your voice and tone, decide what emotion you want your writing to take on. Will it be positive, neutral, negative, or something in between? Again, your choice should mirror your target audience.
4. Outline branded words and phrases.
What are the keywords and phrases associated with your business? To keep consistency throughout your business, identify these words for your style guide. This should include specific spellings and capitalizations.
Take MSNBC for example. The cable channel has two logos, one with lowercase letters and another with capitalized letters. However, when the channel is written in copy form, it is always fully capitalized. This would be something to note in a writing style guide.
This should also carry into any slogans or phrases associated with your company. For their slogan “Betcha can’t eat just one,” Lay’s would need to make sure that their guide specifies the spelling of “Betcha” and that there is no ending punctuation. To look cohesive and professional, it is crucial to keep this consistency throughout all messaging.
5. Establish guidelines for formatting.
In addition to focusing on what is written in your style guide, you will also have to focus on how it is written. Your writing style guide should include guidelines for:
- Bold, italicized, and regular text
- Bullet points versus numbered lists
Formatting will allow your readers to skim and digest your content quickly. In addition, as they become acquainted with your style, they will come to expect your company’s organizational breakdown. Every business has the autonomy to choose how it formats its content. Make sure you develop a format that flows effectively for your readers.
6. Use a style guide template.
As you work through the above steps to build your writing style guide, you might draw a blank on how to format it. Use a template. Many companies have their style guides available to the public. Find a company that you’d like to emulate, use them as a starting point, and customize the guide until it becomes a representation of your business. See the “Writing Style Guide Examples” section below for style guides from companies like Mailchimp, Google, and NASA.
What to Include in Your Writing Style Guide
There are a few key sections to include in your style guide.
1. Style Manual
Style manuals are reference books that tell writers how to handle grammar, punctuation, and any special use cases. Most businesses adopt either the AP Stylebook or the Chicago Manual of Style. It's up to you to decide which manual you'd like your company to follow.
You can purchase online subscriptions to these manuals for your employees to reference, the login for which you should also include in this section of the editorial style guide to make access simple. You might find employees are more likely to reference these tools when provided with an online subscription that contains a search function instead of a paper book through which they have to flip to find their answers.
While these style guides provide a good reference point for basic grammar rules, you'll probably want to make some exceptions to the rules for the sake of branding, tone, and style.
Use this section of your editorial style guide to outline those exceptions and also to highlight some of the rules that commonly arise when writing for your company. Ideally, your writers would commit these rules to memory, regardless of whether it is aligned with or against house style. For example:
- What do you capitalize? Do you capitalize the name of your product? Are there certain prepositions you want capitalized in your title despite your stylebook's recommendations?
- What do you abbreviate? How do you punctuate those abbreviations? Would you type "a.k.a." or "aka"? "Okay" or "O.K."? Or "OK"?
- Do you use an Oxford comma?
Listing answers to common questions like these in the first part of your editorial style guide will give people an easy resource to reference that will save you time and encourage consistency. Feel free to continue adding to this list as more confusions arise and get resolved during the content creation process. You're creating your own style guide, so feel free to borrow different rules from different style guides. The important thing is that you use the same rules consistently throughout all the content you create.
2. Commonly Troublesome Words
Most companies have terminology that's specific to their industry, and not all of those terminologies have a universally agreed-upon spelling. For instance, if you write a lot about digital marketing like we do here at HubSpot, you'll find a lot of inconsistency around the spelling and capitalization of words like these:
- ebook vs. Ebook vs. e-book
- ecommerve vs. e-commerce
- internet vs. Internet
- website vs. web site
- Facebook Like vs. Facebook like
- Retweet vs. re-tweet vs. reTweet vs. ReTweet
Instead of debating how to spell, capitalize, or hyphenate these words, include a section in your style guide called "Commonly Troublesome Words" so writers can easily look up the proper spelling of these words according to your house style guide.
Advice for Global Companies
If you have global readership and create content for specific, same-language markets, you should include notes on whether you change spelling for those markets or retain your house style.
For example, if marketers from HubSpot's Dublin office write a blog post, should American editors change their spelling of "favour" to "favor"? "Internationalise" to "Internationalize"? These questions should be answered in your style guide, and the "Commonly Troublesome Words" section is a logical location to do that.
Similarly, if you are creating content in various languages, style guides should be created for each language.
3. Voice and Tone
This section of the editorial style guide should address something less concrete than grammar rules but arguably more important, and that is how your content should sound to the reader.
Can writers use the first person? How do you feel about the use of industry jargon? Think about the words you would use to describe your content in an ideal world. Which adjectives do you want your content to evoke? Conversational, educational, academic, funny, controversial, or objective?
You might think you want your content to be all of the above, but force yourself to prioritize just a few. Explain why it's important to achieve this style and tone in your content, and provide examples of content (excerpts are fine) that are successful in doing so, particularly if those excerpts exist on your own site already.
If there are stylistic characteristics your content absolutely should not have, include that information, too. Again, examples of what not to do are helpful here for the sake of comparative illustration.
When deciding on style and tone, be sure to consider your target audience and buyer personas in the process. Which style and tone would resonate best with them? This brings us to our next section.
Buyer personas are inextricably tied to style and tone, so it's important to include this section either before or after the "Style and Tone" section of your style guide. Why is it so important to include personas? Because the style and tone you adopt should be informed by your target audience, i.e. the people that will be reading all this stuff you're writing.
That being said, the personas in your editorial style guide don't need to go as in-depth as the personas created by your sales and marketing teams. (Those might include detailed information like objections that arise in the sales process and how to overcome them, or tips on identifying these personas "in the wild" or when you get them on the phone.)
The personas in your editorial style guide should be more brief, simply pulling out the highlights that concisely explain who your target audience is, their pain points, how they like to be communicated with, the value your company provides, and a picture to give writers a visual to keep in mind when creating content.
Including personas in your style guide really comes in handy when you're working with freelance writers. If you're doing a good job with freelance writer management, you'll provide ample context to inform the content they're writing. A persona, and how that informs tone and writing style, should always be included when kicking off a new freelance writer project.
5. Graphics and Formatting
I know, I told you earlier not to get into the nitty-gritty with visual guidelines. This is still true. Your design team or agency should create a separate brand design style guide that addresses more nuanced visual things. (Can you tell I'm not a designer?)
You should, however, add a little information to your written style guide if your writers are ever responsible for creating visual assets and/or copyediting visual assets created by designers. Here are some common questions that may come up that will impact writers or editors:
- Where can writers source images, and how do they properly attribute them?
- When should images align to the right, to the left, or in the center?
- Should text wrap around images?
- What are the RGB and hex codes for your text and headers?
- What typefaces can be used?
- Can writers use italics, bold, or underlining? If so, is usage limited to certain occasions, like bolding headers and hyperlinks?
- Which kind of bullets should be used (square, round, or other), and how should they align with the rest of the text?
- How should numbered lists appear: "1", "1." or "1.)"?
Many of these graphical elements can be present in your content management system, but they can be easily overridden when writers copy and paste content from elsewhere with formatting attached, or by an overzealous writer with a flair for design. Outline these expectations in your editorial style guide, and refer those with more advanced needs to your brand style guide.
6. Approved and Unapproved Content
Great content often cites research and data from third party sources. Make your writer's job easier by providing approved industry resources from which they can draw, and even more importantly, resources from which they cannot draw. Break up this section of your editorial style guide into two sections: recommended and approved industry resources, and "do not mention" resources.
The information in the "do not mention" section should include competitors and unreliable resources, and it should also mention controversial topics and opinions that should be avoided at all costs. For example, many companies strictly prohibit any mention of politics or religion in their content, or have provisions that explain when it is acceptable to include and how to frame the discussion. Similarly, many companies work within certain legal restrictions, in which case this section of the style guide might provide instructions for receiving legal approval before publishing a piece of content.
This is the section of your editorial style guide to explain the intricacies of such controversies as they relate to your brand so you can prevent reputation management catastrophes.
With great research comes great responsibility... and a lot of choices, unfortunately. Clear up the confusion around how to properly cite research by deciding on one methodology and documenting it in your editorial style guide. Explain how to create footnotes, references, links to external sites, or even bibliographies if they are relevant to your company.
This section of your editorial style guide doesn't need to be long. Just write down the rules and provide some examples of proper citations so writers can easily attribute their sources properly.
8. Examples to Show What's Right and Wrong
Every section of your editorial style guide can benefit from real life examples of the concepts you're explaining, whether you include those examples on the same page or as an appendix at the end of the guide.
For example, when talking about proper formatting, include a visual example of a well-formatted blog post with callouts that detail why the elements are successful. If you're discussing grammar usage, provide an incorrect example, and then mark it up to show how a writer could fix it to align with your editorial style guide.
Bridging your requirements with proper executions from your actual website will help illustrate these concepts more clearly and cut down on follow-up questions and instances of exceptions to the rules you've laid out.
What Not to Include In Your Style Guide
It can be tempting to create the most comprehensive style guide of all time. But when documents get incredibly long, it can become a little hard to use on a day-to-day basis. Aim for "comprehensive, yet usable" by intentionally cutting some sections. Common sections you should omit from your style guide include:
Content Operation Notes
While content operations are the backbone of your content creation process, detailed information on the processes should not be included in a writing style guide. The action of submitting content to your editorial team is an irreplaceable step in getting content published; however, this does not add value to the style your writers will use in creating. Additional content operation notes that can be left out of your style guide include requesting slots on the editorial calendar or revision cycles.
Minor Visual Style Recommendations
Many teams fail to realize that a brand’s logo can affect SEO. For those who know this information, you may be tempted to include rules around logo usage or other visual style guide elements in your writing style guide. Don’t. With some basic exceptions, these would be saved for a separate brand or visual style guide.
As previously mentioned, writing style guides have little to do with the visual design elements of the brand. They affect how the writing looks, but they don’t serve your writers as they create. The following design elements should be left out of your writing style guide.
This section lists the fonts your brand will use and where they can be accessed. Typography sections also provide detailed information on when and where to use different fonts, as well as acceptable sizes and variations.
Logo & Variations
As important as your logo is to your brand identity, it holds little to no importance in the eyes of your writers. Providing an image of your logo to your writers may help them connect with the look and feel of the brand; however, extra details about variations and when to use them on print or digital content is inconsequential.
When choosing brand colors, they typically align with the feel of the brand. Bright colors are used to symbolize ‘happy’ or ‘fresh’ brands, while darker colors can make a brand seem bolder and more daring. While the color palette can help solidify the tone of the brand to the writer, it is still unnecessary. Everything they need to know should be expressed when you define your company’s voice and tone.
Your editorial style guide will simply guide writers by providing a set of standards to which they must adhere when creating content for your website. It eliminates confusion, guesswork, and debates over what boils down to a matter of editorial opinion among grammar and content geeks.
If you're ever unsure whether something should or should not exist in your written style guide, fall back on usage to inform your decision. If it's too long to be usable, cut it down; if it's too short to answer the most common questions, beef it up.
How to Get Others to Use Your Style Guide
If you put in all this work to create a comprehensive style guide, it'd be a real bummer if no one used it.
Here's the truth: Some people just aren't going to use it, no matter how easy you make it for them to do so. So, just accept that. But after you're done grieving, there are a few things you can do to increase the likelihood of adoption:
1. Involve other people in its creation from the get-go.
Instead of mandating the rules your entire company must use when writing, get a few people together to help create the style guide as a group. Ideally, this little committee will span more than one department to increase the likelihood of widespread adoption.
2. Make it easy to find and use.
Our style guide is available on our internal repository, so it's easy for people to find, bookmark, and Ctrl+F to get answers to questions quickly. Make yours similarly easy to access and use.
3. Keep updating it.
Your style guide is intended to be a living document. As new questions arise, make it easy for writers to ask questions about proper usage and get a resolution, and make sure that resolution is reflected in an updated version of the style guide.
Writing Style Guide Examples
If you want to see a writing style guide in action, check out the examples below from well-known companies like Apple, Shopify, and Intuit.
In Google’s style guide, they are very explicit with its principle to create clear, accurate, concise text. The company offers clear directives to write simply and directly, address users clearly, and more.
They also skillfully demonstrate examples of what employees should and should not do. For example, instead of saying, “Consult the documentation that came with your phone for further instructions,” their writers should write something similar to “Read the instructions that came with your phone.” With this guide, Google ensures that its text is inclusive to anyone, regardless of their cultural or language differences.
You likely recognize Intuit for programs like TurboTax and Quickbooks. While some companies have their writing style guide formatted as a formal document, Intuit takes a different approach. Their guide appears as a message board.
On one of their most recent updates, they shared new guidelines on when and how to celebrate customer wins. As you scroll through their guide, you will find voice and tone examples, word list updates, and principles on how to identify and replace harmful language.
The eCommerce platform, Shopify, has an extensive content style guide that walks its writers through voice and tone, accessible and inclusive language, grammar and mechanics, and naming. As it elaborates on its voice guidelines, it reminds writers that when speaking as Shopify’s voice, they should “be real, but not too tough or overly familiar.”
It directs writers to be proactive without being pushy by offering their customers sincere encouragement and practical advice. In addition to these guidelines, Shopify has created a list of acceptable vocabulary and abbreviations to ensure its messaging is consistent and clear for its merchants.
Warm and relaxed, crisp and clear, and ready to lend a hand: That is Microsoft’s approach to writing for its customers. Microsoft is another company with a different take on how it presents its writing style guide. With one webpage at the center, it links out to valuable information, including its “Top 10 tips for mastering Microsoft style and voice.”
The page lists other recommended content, such as information on bias-free communication and directives on how to write step-by-step instructions. Whether the content is for an app, website, or white paper, this guide keeps all Microsoft communication clear, concise, and consistent.
In Apple’s writing style guide, they immediately express their mission. Reflecting on the diversity of its customers, they stress the purpose of the guide — to write consciously and inclusively.
The setup that Apple uses is also very on-brand. Its style guide has “previous’ and “next” buttons, which mimics a step-by-step tutorial that one is familiar with if they’re acquainted with Apple products. Apple also encourages its writers to return for updates. Writing changes over time, so its writers need to adapt to the changes Apple makes to its writing style guide as they happen.
Writing copy for a brand can be confusing. As you switch between media, there are certain nuances that you might have to take into account. Mailchimp does a great job breaking down these components in its style guide. It includes principles for writing technical content, legal content, email newsletters, and social media.
To facilitate the process for its writers, the Mailchimp content style guide has a hyperlinked section that allows users to quickly navigate through the webpage.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is known for the complexities of outer space. In its style guide, it mentions that its purpose is to be consistent in its writing style and usage, so its readers avoid distraction from confusing terms and concepts.
The guide directs its writers to use The Chicago Manual of Style but also provides specific topics, including an overview of their editorial style as well as sections on gender-specific language, abbreviations, and figures and tables.
8. Yokel Local
This example comes from HubSpot Partner Yokel Local. Their writing style guide keeps both their in-house contributors and their freelancers on the same page when writing and editing marketing content for clients.
You'll notice that they didn't go too far in the weeds, either. The whole guide is 15 pages in large, attractive lettering, and anything not explicitly stated in the guide is left up to the AP Stylebook and the Merriam-Webster dictionary. The simplicity is effective, and they clearly had fun designing the document to be cohesive with their brand guidelines.
Polish Your Editorial and Content Style
When it comes to running your business, you might assume that your words hold little weight when compared to your products or services. You’d be mistaken. While your products are central to your business, how you share information — the words you use — is critical to gaining new customers and maintaining existing ones.
Consistency is an important factor in managing a successful business. With a writing style guide, you will decrease inconsistent content and communication. You will equip your team with the tools and resources to deliver a strong, cohesive message that draws in your target audience. As you work to create or polish your writing style guide, this article will serve as your guide to get there.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in May 2015 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.