Do you want your organisation’s written material to make a big impact on customers and inspire confidence in your brand? If you do, it needs to be consistent, strike the right tone and reflect what you’re all about. An editorial style guide can help with this.
Why would you need a style guide?
The chances are that your organisation produces written material of some sort, such as:
A style guide can help you to project a strong, coherent identity, with a consistent ‘look and feel’ to all this material, so it will get your message across smoothly. It can shape the style and tone of the writing, so it will resonate with your target readers.
If a number of people are involved in the writing and editing, or it’s done over a long period, there’s a bigger risk of inconsistencies creeping in. A documented house style, with someone to enforce it, can help to iron them out.
(A note for clarity: Style guides can also cover visual style, such as typefaces, colouring and page layouts. But here I’m just dealing with editorial style: that is, the use of words, numbers and punctuation.)
What is a style guide?
It’s a set of guidelines, detailing an organisation’s preferences about various aspects of writing.
Many features of spelling, grammar, punctuation and so on aren’t governed by cast-iron ‘rules’. Instead, they have various conventions – or style choices – and you can decide which ones suit you best.
Here are some points that a typical style guide might deal with:
Publishers of books, magazines and newspapers typically have style guides, as do many other organisations, both private and public.
When would you use it?
IdeaIly, the people who write the content in the first place should follow your style guide. In reality, though, they can easily get caught up in what they’re writing, and not pay enough attention to how they’re writing it.
So, once the writing has been done, it’s time for an editor or proofreader to check it. This is where your house style should be applied more faithfully, so that you’ll make the most of it.
How can you get one?
You could write it yourself, but input from a professional editor or writer would be very useful. With the expertise they’ve built up from years of working on written material all day, they can keep your style guide in line with common conventions and good practice. They can also help you to tailor it to suit the purpose of your written material, and to its audience.
Alternatively, you could hire an editor or writer to create a draft version for you, which you could then review and change as you see fit. They could look through some of your existing material, identify your preferences, and pick out areas of inconsistency and potential improvement. Then they could put all this together to make a clear, well-organised set of guidelines to help ensure a smooth, consistent style in the future.
Keeping it flexible
Your style guide could have separate sections for various types of content that you produce. For example, you’ll probably need a different style for business reports than for promotional leaflets.
Also, writing for the web and writing for printed material have different needs. And if you’re running an international operation, different forms of English, and perhaps different styles of writing, might best suit your various markets.
To learn more ...
The Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) has published a useful booklet, Your House Style: Styling your words for maximum impact, about the value of a style guide and how to create one. You can get it in printed or PDF form from the SfEP’s website here. [Update: As of March 2020, the former SfEP is now the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP).]
(An earlier version of this article was published on LinkedIn in October 2018.)
Thoughts on Words
An editorial blog. Posts by Graham Hughes.