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August 12, 2016

Creating a company style guide: the 8 fundamentals you need to cover

Don't be daunted by writing a style guide - just get the essentials in place, then you can add to it over time. Here's how to get started

In a world where writing counts and words carry the personality of your company, presenting a united front to customers and prospects really matters. Consistency counts. You need to get your whole team singing from the same hymn sheet to create your company’s harmonic voice.

That’s where a house style guide comes in. This post will show you how to create a style guide by working through eight core sections. Once those are in place, you’ve got a solid foundation that you can add to over time.

Before we get started, let’s take a look at what a style guide is and contains.

What is a company style guide?

It’s a living document that details your company’s written voice. Some house style guides run to ten pages and more, others just about fill a page. But all help you to keep consistency in tone, word choice, spelling, grammar and punctuation.

Ideally a company style guide will grow as it’s used. As a problem with voice, grammar, punctuation or spelling arises, you decide on the solution and add it to the guide, so everyone benefits from those hours agonising over a comma, hyphen or turn of phrase.

Is a style guide like a school text book?

No. It doesn’t teach, it guides. Your company style guide should assume everyone using it already has a good command of written language, even if they don’t know all the technical terms.

How to arrange your style guide

Some companies arrange their style guide alphabetically, so ‘hyphenation’ could easily appear next to ‘HTML’ and ‘healthcare’ (or ‘health-care’ or ‘health care’ depending on your style). It’s a common approach, and both Reuters and the Guardian arrange their style guides this way. Alternatively, you can arrange your style guide by themes and topics.

The big eight: what your style guide needs to contain

Let’s get down to business. When you’re putting your style guide together, there is a list of key things you need to define. These are the eight elements we’ll be discussing in more detail below.

  1. Overview (language, measurements and reference points)
  2. Layout
  3. Company personality and voice
  4. How to use grammar to achieve voice
  5. Mechanics and format
  6. Spelling and word choice
  7. Words and phrases to avoid
  8. Your brand and product styles

1. The overview

Language choices

Does your company use British English, American English, Australian English or another variant? To avoid confusion later on, make the language you’re using clear right at the beginning of the overview section.

Measurements

Is your company imperial or metric? It’s a simple thing, but if 30% of your writers use metric and the rest uses imperial, you set your company up for a fall. Deciding which measurements your company will use not only helps you to present a united voice but could also spare you costly and embarrassing errors. One hundred inches is very different to 100 cm.

Go-to dictionary

Since Samuel Johnson published the first dictionary back in 1755, there’s been a run on them. Mr Collins, Mr Oxford and Mr MacMillan all wanted a piece of the action, and 250 years later there are many, many dictionaries on the market. As an organisation, you should choose one dictionary for everyone to refer to – either a real book-book dictionary or an online one like Dictionary.com.

Punctuation

Punctuation is probably the most ummed and ahhed-over element of writing, mainly because only primary-school children, professional editors and a handful of academics understand it – and even fewer care about it.

But punctuation has played a vital role in lawsuits and arguments the world over, so it’s worth getting right. That and there’s little as beautiful as a well-punctuated sentence. When writing is well punctuated, customers feel in safe hands without even knowing why.

Choose a punctuation guide, and cite it in your style guide’s overview section. Good print choices include the Penguin Punctuation Guide or the Oxford Guide to Punctuation, but you can also use online resources such as Cambridge British Grammar or the amazing guide by punctuation guru Larry Trask.

Remember that American and British punctuation differ, so get a guide for the right version.

OVERVIEW

British English

Based on Guardian style guide http://www.theguardian.com/guardian-observer-style-guide-a

For spelling, refer to http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/british/

For general punctuation rules, refer to http://www.sussex.ac.uk/informatics/punctuation/

For international accents and symbols, use http://www.starr.net/is/type/kbh.html#map

2. Layout

Do you want capitals for every word in the heading? Or just caps at the beginning of every word? Or only caps for nouns, verbs and adjectives? Do you want headings underlined or in bold – or both? Should your team leave a line between the heading and the copy or not?

Questions, questions, questions. But if you have them all answered in the style guide, you’ll make your inbox considerably lighter. So decide how you want headers to look, and give examples within the guide.

HEADINGS

CAPITALISE EVERY WORD/ Use Caps only for Nouns and Verbs

Retell article in less than a line (as short as possible)

Use strong verbs – 1- or 2-syllable words

No space between subheadings and copy

Subheadings – also keyword focussed

3. Company personality and voice

This is the fun bit. This is your chance to define WHO your company is. What sort of person is it? How does it talk? Decide who you’ll be when you’re writing. Many style guides use a ‘this-not-that’ format, for example:

Fun not silly

Quirky not crazy

Educated not academic

Sensible not boring

Or a this-but-that format

Liberal but traditional

Carefree but prudent

Pragmatic but adventurous

And those lists can go on and on until you are happy you have a really clear idea of who your company is. Get as many people involved in this discussion as possible so anyone who is going to be writing has ownership over the personality they’ve created. 

4. How to use grammar to achieve voice

This is a tougher one to define if you’re not a trained writer or editor, but it’s really useful if you’re able to provide it. A fairly carefree young company might want to try something like this:

Write as you talk

Use ‘you’

Use active voice and strong verbs (avoid ‘to be’ where possible)

Format as a combination of lists and copy. Avoid long blocks of writing

Keep paragraphs and sentences short

Feel free to use ‘and’ ‘but and ‘or’ or ‘so’ to start a sentence

Use nouns as verbs

Opt for simple sentences with phrases rather than complex sentences (e.g. “Taking in the view, you can mojito yourself happy” NOT “While you take in the view, you can enjoy a mojito”)

Use phrasal verbs rather than academic-sounding words (attend = go to)

A more traditional company with a sober, adult personality might try something like this:

Use ‘we’ or ‘us’ to refer to both company and the reader – in it together

Use active voice and strong verbs (avoid ‘to be’ where possible)

Use passive voice to avoid placing blame or praise (The road was closed for several hours/ The project was finished in record time)

Format as a combination of lists and copy. Avoid long blocks of writing

Don’t be afraid to use complex sentences and slightly longer paragraphs

Avoid using ‘and’ ‘but and ‘or’ or ‘so’ to start a sentence, but can be used occasionally

Stick to traditional phrasing

Use academic-sounding words rather than phrasal verbs (attend = go to)

5. Mechanics and format

If you have specific punctuation, capitalisation or grammar favourites, list them here. Maybe you’re a pro-Oxford comma company; maybe you’re not. Maybe you love a good exclamation mark; maybe you hate it. Here’s where you put those details. Don’t forget to remind your writers where they can find more general rules on grammar, spelling and punctuation, too.

PUNCTUATION

Limit use of exclamation marks and end-of-sentence emdashes

Hyphenate pre-noun adjectives/ compounds (gap-year traveller, secondary-school leaver, BUT take a gap year, go to secondary school)

In lists use no full stops at the end of the point

Single speech marks for quotations

Double speech marks for “emphasised” words (but limit use and DON’T use for proper nouns

Use white space around N-dashes. Like this – not like this–. Also use N-dash – not a hyphen -.

CAPITALISATION

Minimise use of capitals. Only capitalise proper nouns (bachelor and master Bachelor and Master, sixth form Sixth Form, university University)

no capital after : or ; or –

Write out place names (Los Angeles, not LA)

UK and USA – no full stops between letters

Regions and directions: When referring to regions, these should be capitalised and one word: Southeast Asia, South Africa, the Midwest. When referring to general directions, these should be lowercase and one word: He travelled east to St Louis

GRAMMAR

British date format 7th June 2006 (write month names in full)

Don’t use Oxford/serial comma unless to ensure meaning

Reduce to contractions (i.e. they’re, not they are)

Write one to ten in words, all other numbers in digits

6. Spelling and word choice

Again remind your writers which dictionary you’re using in house, so they have a go-to guide. But if you’re a healthcare company, for example, decide whether you’re using ‘healthcare’, ‘health care’ or ‘health-care’. Every industry has these little nuances, but it’s things like this that really help you present a unified team to the world. Make sure you add any new ones ALPHABETICALLY when they crop up.

7. Words and phrases to avoid

We all have pet hates and phrases we just don’t want to see. There are also several words that have fallen out of fashion either in the industry or in society as a whole. You know the ones. Language evolves and changes to suit the times, so make sure you’re rolling with it. Create and add to an alphabetical list of anything you don’t want your writers to use. 

8. Styles for your brand and product names

This seems obvious, maybe, but it’s surprising how many in-house writers get their brands and product names wrong. It’s not a surprise when you think that we so often refer to a product or project in an in-house shorthand rather than use the full title.

Add a list of all brands and products written at the end of the document, presenting them exactly as you want to see them in communication with the customer. Add new ones as they appear.

So there you have it. How to write your in-house style guide and launch your company into the world with its very own, very consistent personality.

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