What Is A Style Guide? Main Elements of a Great Style Guide
Are you starting to produce online content or have been for a while? If you haven’t already, it’s time to start using a style guide for the writers on your team. But what is a style guide and why should you use one? While you have started reaping some of the benefits of a solid content marketing strategy, you may struggle with one or more of these issues:
- Too much variation in style, tone and message among blog writers and internal stakeholders
- Frequent mistakes with your house style, such as errors with common acronyms, proper names and oft-used phrases
- Poor or inconsistent content quality
- Vague or misleading style, tone and message
- Limited or uneven content quality
- Overuse of jargon, common phrases and similar language
With a brand style guide, you can more effectively express your company’s mission, vision, values and personality to enhance the authentic connection with your target audience.
But how do you create a style guide? We have the answers.
What Is a Style Guide?
A style guide is what writers use to create content that sounds and feels like your business. While your brand identity guide is a great way to know what you say and stand for, the style guide governs exactly how you say it. The writers that create your business content will use the details in this document to nail the correct voice for your brand.
Using a style guide won’t make content sound monotonous or repetitive, but it will help you develop a consistent voice that readers recognize and trust. A style guide also focuses on the writing and grammar structure of each article. As a result, you’ll improve the quality of your content and achieve a reliable personality, both factors that build reader trust.
What Are the Key Elements of a Style Guide?
You may agree on the importance of this guide, but you may be wondering exactly what is a style guide and how to create one. Consider these essential components when compiling your brand’s very first style guide. While the exact sections and details will vary depending on your brand, this outline provides a basic framework you can customize as needed.
Keep in mind that we are using the term “style guide” here to refer to the editorial or content style guide for your company. Sometimes, however, these resources also include visual guidelines, such as your brand’s design best practices, color palette, logo and its use, preferred fonts and other aspects of your firm’s aesthetic identity.
But in general, here are things you can and should include in your style guide.
Brand Messaging Pillars
Whenever your company decides to hire a content writer, that professional should develop a clear understanding of your key messages before creating content. That means that what is in your style guide matters to the writers. To that end, start your style guide by describing your brand messaging pillars.
Choose no more than three to five selling points, benefits, talking points or themes that distinguish your brand from competitors. Ideally, all your content should highlight these brand pillars to amplify your message and maintain consistency. In addition, provide your mission statement, target audience demographics and company core values for easy reference.
Link directly to your brand identity and content strategy document, including competitor analyses, audience personas and other background that will inform and enlighten your content writers. The better they understand your message, the more closely your content will reflect the essence of your brand.
This section should also include your brand statement, or a description of your message in just a paragraph (sometimes called the elevator pitch, since it’s what you would say to someone who asks you to explain your brand on a short elevator ride). Providing taglines here also provides brief but valuable brand insight.
Types of Content Assets
In this section of what is a style guide, outline specifications for each asset you hire a content writer to create. You should include the structure, word count, call-to-action and desired audience for each item, which may include social media posts, email blasts, landing pages, blog posts, e-books and whitepapers.
Linking to a sample for each provides the information they need without cluttering your sleek, streamlined style guide. Some companies like to provide a template for their content writers, which improves quality and consistency across publications. Having a form field for each item keeps all the pieces of each task organized and ready to go live.
Because you won’t be able to cover every possible grammar and usage question in your brand style guide, Content Marketing Institute recommends choosing an existing style guide to use as your default.
For example, at BKA Content we instruct our writers to stick with The Associated Press Stylebook. These guidelines are popular for online writing because they champion the principles of brief, accurate, clear and consistent communication. The Chicago Manual of Style and The Yahoo! Style Guide are other common picks.
Once you choose a baseline style guide, you can use the remainder of your brand’s guide to cover areas where content should differ from or expand upon that guide. Consider an alphabetized list of exceptions to your chosen style for easy reference once you hire a content writer. Examples to review within that realm include:
- Common business acronyms
- Abbreviations for common business terms and phrases
- Preferences for comma usage
- How dates and times should appear
- How to indicate numbers and figures
- The correct case for your headings and subheadings
- When to use special fonts such as bold or italic
You can also provide a list of approved style resources your writers can use to craft quality content, including reference manuals like Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style” and online tools like HemingwayApp.com.
What is a style guide’s role in helping writers create quality content? It leaves no room for inconsistencies that readers may find when reading several of your articles. Your style guide should indicate the appropriate spelling and usage for frequently used proper names.
For example, do you have program names that you want to capitalize? Do you render your business name as all one word in lowercase? Does your brand use common abbreviations that you should spell out for the reader on first reference? This section will help your content writer get those critical elements correct and avoid confusing your audience.
When you hire a content writer, you count on that person to provide clear, consistent formatting. Establish a preferred style so your audience can expect the same level of quality with each content asset. Questions to review include the following:
- Should your writer use bulleted or numbered lists? How should those lists be formatted (indents, bullet size, punctuation, etc.)?
- Are direct quotations OK? How should references and statistics be cited and linked in your content?
- Do images in your content have captions? How do you provide credit for images?
Tense, Active vs. Passive Voice and Point of View
This section provides best practices on these three elements of high-quality content. Answer these questions:
- When writing from the perspective of the brand, should the writer use first-person, second-person or third-person POV?
- While writers should generally default to active voice, is the use of passive voice ever appropriate for your brand?
- Do you prefer the writer to create content in past, present or future tense?
What is a style guide without careful and complete instruction on the way your writers sound when they represent your company? This is one of the biggest roles of a style guide and you should be prepared to answer the style questions of your writers.
Does the Oxford comma make your skin crawl? Do you want to avoid jargon and marketing speak like “upsell” in your copy? Spell out these “don’ts” in this section of the style guide. However, a pet peeves section doesn’t have to focus solely on the negatives. Take a look at MailChimp’s Word List, a section of their style guide that details both words to use carefully and words to avoid.
What Is the Purpose of a Style Guide?
Many writers will attempt to identify with the personality of your brand. You can assist by providing examples of the appropriate tone and language. Knowing how to create a style guide is really all about knowing how to best help your writers create content that is consistent across the brand.
For example, include snippets of content that reflect your desired brand voice. You can also use what is in the style guide to list adjectives that describe your brand, alongside words that miss the mark. Listing specific words and phrases that blog writers should and should not use is also effective, especially if your niche area is specific, technical or often misunderstood.
If you already have a brand persona in place, that characterization will guide the tone and personality of your content. In your style guide, detail the aspects of your content that reflect the persona. Would that individual use metaphors? Playful language? Short or long sentences? Terse directives or complex musings? The structure, length, word choice and syntax all contribute to the effect your content will have on the reader. Think about whether your brand uses slang, which would suggest a more casual approach, or avoids contractions, which creates formal diction. Each word choice influences your brand voice.
Provide examples of tone so your blog writers for hire will have vibrant references to boost the quality of content they can produce. Lists of adjectives are often beneficial. Many style guides use the “Our brand is X, but not Y” framework to describe tone.
For example, “Our brand is fun, but not irresponsible.” Take a look at the Hubspot Academy style guide. The brand, which provides online education and certification for professionals, makes this simple statement that speaks volumes: “The HubSpot product voice is clear, helpful, human, and kind.”
Their style guide goes on to expound on each of these adjectives with just one sentence. The University of Dundee takes a similar tactic by describing itself as “inclusive, future-focused, egalitarian, confident, ambitious and progressive.”
What Are Additional Elements To Include in a Style Guide?
Some components of quality content fall outside of style, tone and voice. What is a style guide without the writers who use it? Including these common best practice categories in your style guide can ensure you cover all your bases when seeking professional writers for hire for the first time. Writers will know what to expect when doing the research and creating content for your company.
Although professional writers for hire are well-versed in creating trustworthy content, your style guide should include helpful guidelines for using reliable sources. For example, you may want to remind your writers to steer clear of referencing specific competitors, using unvetted data sources or touching on controversial topics within your industry. This section can clarify preferred resources as well as taboo content areas.
Search Engine Optimization
Error-free writing and a consistent tone is important, but you also want to optimize your content for performance on Google and other search engines. However, you’ll want to make sure that your writer avoids keyword stuffing and other techniques that register as spam. Address keyword usage and frequency in your style guide. This section should also establish and define other elements of your brand’s SEO framework. Provide instructions for the title tag, meta description, subheadings and other content aspects that help audiences and search engines find your brand.
Saving and Submission Process
Consistent naming and filing systems maintain the organization of your content assets. Clarify the elements of your brand’s file naming conventions and the process for submitting content in the style guide. You may also want to list the steps in the publication process and include contact information for the person who holds responsibility for each milestone.
Many brands also find that a final content checklist helps their writers deliver complete, consistent, informative and engaging copy. When everyone in the content delivery process conducts quality checks along the way, the overall quality of your brand slowly and surely increases in the eyes of your readers.
How Should You Distribute and Manage Your Style Guide?
What is a style guide if nobody reads or uses it? Distribute the style guide to all internal stakeholders so you can incorporate their feedback and suggestions. Give its release the enthusiasm you would a new product release to encourage adoption of the guide and its principles. An electronic document can incorporate links and search functionality, making the style guide even more useful for anyone who produces content within your organization.
Remember that your style guide should be a living and breathing document. Frequent updates allow it to keep up with your dynamic brand and reflect the growth of your business. Without updates, the guide—and your content—will quickly fall out of touch with the realities of your brand. Ideally, one person in your organization should have ownership over the style guide. If you plan to hire a content writer, you can ask that person to help facilitate updates since he or she will often be able to clarify style questions and concerns.
While this style guide outline may seem extensive, remember that you don’t have to completely reinvent the wheel. In fact, many marketing experts recommend limiting your content guide to no more than five pages. Think of it as a reference manual the writer can check in with again and again. A style guide should be designed to solve problems for your organization, not to complicate your content delivery process.
Use A Style Guide Today
Have we sufficiently answered the question “what is a style guide and how do you create one?” When you have your brand’s style guide in hand and you’re finally ready to hire a content writer to elevate your online presence, consider the team at BKA Content. Because we are dedicated solely to quality content creation, we have the skills and experience to help your business excel in this ever-changing realm. And we’ll be sure to use the style guide for your company so that we emulate the tone, voice and personality of your business. Hire a content writer today!
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