Writing a Style Guide: What You Need to Know

Introduction

In publishing and media companies, use of a style guide is the norm. However, style guides can also be useful for any organization that prepares documents for clients and the public. This article is for organizations outside of the publishing industry who can benefit from the introduction of a style guide.

A style guide is a reference point that sets standards for writing documents within your organization. The focus of the style guide is not usually a matter of 'correct' or 'incorrect' grammar or style but, rather, it provides guidance for instances when many possibilities exist.

Style guides offer you the chance to present your brand in a consistent way. They help to ensure that multiple authors use one tone. And they help save time and resources by providing an instant answer when questions arise about preferred style.

The rest of this article is structured as follows:

How Your Guide Will Be Read (aka 'The Facts of Life')

To write an effective style guide, it is important to keep in mind that most people in your company will barely read it. A keen new recruit may read all the way through. But for most people, the style guide is there as a resource. It is there to answer questions and settle arguments. So it's important that the structure be clear, and a Table of Contents is the first thing that readers find.

“Remember that style guides are references, consulted when a question or problem arises, rather than books to be read as a training tool.” — Jean Hollis Weber, Developing a Departmental Style Guide

Making Use of Existing Style Guides

How do you decide what belongs in your style guide? Good industry-wide style guides are often hundreds of pages long. So the easiest way to write your style guide is to select one that covers your sector and then do not repeat anything that is in that guide. Instead, just note any additions or changes that apply to your organization.

How can you find out which style guide is right for your organization?

Check the list here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/House_style.

By using an external guide as the point of reference, you can focus your reader on the key things to remember in your organization.

The Most Important Things for Your Reader to Remember

In many cases, the purpose of the style guide is to ensure that documents conform to corporate style and branding. For example, does your organization abbreviate its name? If so, when and how is the abbreviated term used? Getting corporate style right is not just important for your own organization; key industry terms that can be presented in more than one way should also be included in the style guide. If your clients have a preferred style for their name, then these should be included too.

After corporate style and branding, often the next most important use of the style guide is to answer internal questions about presentation. Your style guide should make clear how authors present:

  • Headings (and how they are capitalized)
  • Lists (whether they are capitalized and how they are punctuated)
  • Numbers (when they should be spelled in full)
  • Rules for chapter, figure and table headings (including numbering)

Tools like PerfectIt can help to ensure that presentation is consistent. What's more, there are free user guides which show how you can customize PerfectIt and share its style sheets among colleagues so that all documents in your organization are checked the same way.

The key to determining what goes in the style guide is to find out how usage differs in your company. The best way to do that is to bring more people into the process of building the style guide. That process is reviewed below, but first this article looks at common mistakes in the preparation of style guides.

Things Not to Do

Almost everyone who writes has a pet peeve that he/she hates to see in print. Maybe you don't like unnecessary use of quotation marks? Perhaps you can't understand why grown-ups still don't know the difference between 'it's' and 'its'? You're right. But this is not the place for that. Whatever your bugbear is, you need to put it to one side and focus on the key message.

A good style guide is no more than four pages. Of course, some organizations may need it to be longer. However, outside of publishing, bear in mind that the goal is just to focus on points of style where there is no right answer but where one usage is preferred by the organization. A style guide is not the place to teach your colleagues things that they should already know.

A style guide is also not a design guide. You should have in place templates that automate indentation, typefaces and styles within Word (if you do not have these already, email us for a recommendation at info@intelligentediting.com). Graphics formats, logo presentation and other issues that relate to appearance also belong elsewhere.

If there are rules in your company about signing off documents or procedures for checking and releasing then leave these out. Equally, instructions on using Word do not belong here. Reminding authors to use a spell check before passing on their document is not consistent with how a style guide will be read and is a sure-fire way to deter people from using it.

The Evolution of a Good Style Guide

The best way to make sure that nobody uses your style guide is to write it and then tell everyone else to obey it. The purpose of a style guide is to make sure that multiple authors write in a clear and unified way that reflects the corporate style. So it's best to bring other authors into the process as soon as possible. Run the draft past a select group of people and ask for comments. When the final version goes out, ask for feedback. If you have a company portal, set up a forum for users to discuss the guide. Plan on making revisions in light of feedback and the style guide will become something in which all interested parties can participate.

Conclusion

The key to a good style guide is brevity. Authors use a style guide as a resource, so it should be written as one. A style guide also does not sit on its own. It should be accompanied by a guide that is specific to your industry, separate guides for design and process issues, and tools like PerfectIt to ensure that corporate style is actually adopted.

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