A style guide is a detailed description of the standard format you want to create for your content. Whether you have one source of content or multiple contributors, a style guide helps track style decisions across channels and over time.
The guide should systematically present the standards you want to set for your content. Standards may need to adapt to the requirements of different channels, but the really tricky part is making the style guide a part of your team’s everyday process. Here are just a few things you will want to include in your guide:
- Punctuation and style: How will you capitalize your headlines? Will you use the Oxford comma or not?
- Formatting preferences: How do you treat subheads within articles? How will you format quotations? When should you use a table or a list?
- Design help: Should images be justified to the right or the left? What font size do you use? When should you use bold or italics?
- Some style guides are also operational manuals, and they include brand, process, and governance information. Who reviews the content before it’s published? Where are images stored? When is it appropriate to use the company logo?
These are the kinds of details that make a site look and feel professional. A style guide will help your entire company create consistent, professional content.
Style Guide Formats
There’s plenty to unpack in those 4 bullets, and many organizations end up with 100+-page documents. It won’t surprise you to learn that that kind of style guide isn’t often as effective as you’d hope. When the document is too complex, it’s a barrier to use. So if you must use a document [digital or paper] to convey style information, focus on the critical information that will create the image and level of professionalism that your brand and message demand.
If you’re using certain content systems, or add on content automation/evaluation tools to your workflow, you can embed more of the style guide in the technology itself. It doesn’t completely remove the creator’s need to understand and use the style guidelines, but it can enhance standardization.
Make It Easy
A simple, accessible way to get started is to adopt an existing style guide. Several comprehensive guides are available online for free, though you’re always at the mercy of the organization that originally posted the guide. Others are available for purchase or online subscription. But you need to first discern which guide fits your organization best. Today, the AP style guide is commonly used by many US businesses, but your organization may need the more formal style used by The New York Times, or even the Chicago Manual of Style. You also may need to consider industry-specific standards, especially for terminology.
But then customize — figure out what makes your organization unique, and understand how that should be reflected in your style. This will probably be a fairly compact document that you can distribute along with the adopted guide of your choice.