Shahrain K M
A lot of different people write content for your business. Marketing, product, and support teams create public-facing blog posts, copy, and FAQs. Organizations also hire freelancers, part-timers, and people unfamiliar with the brand to write on their behalf. And then there are also employees who aren’t writers by profession who sometimes have to create content as well.
The result? High variance in your content. Whether it's for your company blog, social media channels, or your newsletter, there’s bound to be inconsistency. This happens because writing style decisions are at the discretion of individual writers. Without guidance, they make up their own style rules.
Bad writing costs companies $400 billion every year. Don't lose business because of this simple oversight. If you want your business communication to feel like one person is speaking with a single tone, voice, sense of humor, and style to your audience, you need a company style guide.
A style guide is a set of standards for the writing and design of your company's content. This could be content for your blog, newsletter, email drip-campaigns, sales material, ads, support documents, product copy, and more.
The purpose of a company writing style guide is to:
Once you have a company style guide in place, even if your business works with multiple writers - internal, freelance, agencies, or partners - all your content should follow the same style. Your customers will thank you for it.
Take, for example, email marketing company, Mailchimp’s style guide:
You’ll quickly notice the importance given to voice and tone. The platform also focuses on writing simply, coming across as genuine with an affinity towards dry humor. They have specific grammar and style guidelines as well.
We have our own writing style guide at Letterdrop. We like our writing to be transparent and friendly. Our goal is to help you get smart on content marketing quickly. No jargon, buzz words, or BS. We try to communicate that to everyone who writes for us through our style guide.
Ok, so you've bought into needing a style guide. Now, how do you begin creating one from scratch?
Copy the style guide of a company you admire. Here's a list of publicly available style guides from companies like Mailchimp, Apple, Google, Shopify, and more. If you really enjoy how one of these companies communicates, just start with theirs as a base. You can customize it to your liking from there instead of starting from scratch. We also made an easy-to-copy style guide in a Google Doc if you need a base.
Tone and voice are often used interchangeably, but they're not.
What is voice?
A company’s voice is the quality that makes your writing unique. Voice is consistent across all communication. This is what makes it seem like one person writes all your company's copy. For example, your business can come across as lively, positive, witty, or professional.
What is tone?
The tone varies depending on the situation (the same person can be in different moods depending on each post).
While your business can have only one voice, the tone can change with circumstance, your audience, and the channel you use. For example, you might be relaxed on social media, but your tone might be serious and formal in a blog post addressing your security and compliance features.
Make sure to add a section on both tone and voice in your style guide.
Do you want your company to come across as formal or informal? If the target audience of an article you’re writing is doctors, then keep in mind that you're writing for a professional crowd. Stay formal, cite reputable journals, and write for an older audience (the average age of licensed doctors is 51). But if you’re writing for football enthusiasts, you can afford to be more casual.
Sentiment shows the emotion in your writing. It's what your content makes your reader feel. You can create a certain level of anxiety around a problem to agitate your reader into looking for a solution (which you might be selling) or you can instill a sense of eagerness to motivate them to try cutting-edge new technology. In your style guide, define what types of sentiments to use and in which situations.
When you provide statistics from surveys and research to cement your statement, you want to verify your sources. If you’re writing an article about the benefits of writing newsletters, for example, you can say “According to X research institute, 80% of businesses send newsletters.” Numbers help you back up statements and make you more persuasive. This is important when you want to incite action like scheduling a demo, signing up for a newsletter, clicking a link, etc.
Unless you're writing fiction, it’s best to be concise. Readers are busy and want to understand what you have to say. Keep your sentences under 25 words. Explain the level of wordiness you'd like to see in your content that you think your audience would enjoy. Use tools like Hemmingway or the Letterdrop editor to get readability feedback.
It's very important that your audience understands your writing. You don't want to leave them confused. Your writing style guide can talk about how you prefer using simple words as opposed to lots of jargon, complicated vocabulary, and acronyms.
Delineating thoughts as bullet points makes reading easy and easy to skim, so you can request writers to use it wherever relevant.
Now that we’ve gone over how your business can get to defining its voice and tone, let’s look at a few elements that are key to your company style guide.
When to use headers
Formatting is a means of allowing readers to skim through the content easily. Headings and sub-headings aid in this effort. Your audience will be able to keep up with your content better when you've clubbed paragraphs under different sub-headings. Headings are also good for your SEO.
In your writing style guide, you can talk about where you need H2s and H3s, how you can organize them, and so forth.
When to hyperlink
Hyperlinking text brings businesses plenty of advantages. It lends credibility to your content, you get to increase your page views, improve your SEO, and influence your readers to take action.
However, when you hyperlink text, it's important that you do it the right way. Instead of hyperlinking text like "click here" or "read more" you can hyperlink phrases that are conversational in tone. Also, ensure that the phrases you hyperlink are relevant to the subject and the page you're linking it to.
Good: Read our article on "business writing".
Bad: To read our article, "click here".
When to use bold, italicized, and regular text
The only thing writers have to remember while making text bold and italicized is that they cannot use it interchangeably. They are not one and the same.
While curating your writing style guide, ensure what writers need to keep in mind when it comes to typography. Since the point of making text bold or italicized is to create emphasis, you could let writers know that they should use it sparingly.
Active voice vs. passive voice
Although there's no harm in writing in passive voice, most companies prefer using active voice while writing. Active voice is used everywhere except scientific writing. It keeps sentences from becoming too wordy.
Active voice: Our new content marketing strategy multiplied profits in two years.
Passive Voice: Our profits were multiplied in two years because of our new content marketing strategy.
If you'd have to pick between the two sentences, most readers would prefer the former. It is shorter and action-oriented.
While building out your writing style guide, you can choose to limit passive voice sentences or instruct writers to avoid it altogether.
Blog posts should generally be written in the present tense unless specifically talking about past or future events. If you're writing a summary about a conference or putting together a social media report from the past year, the verbs will be in the past tense. In your writing style guide, ensure you outline the best practices for tense along with examples for each.
The generally accepted rule in business writing is to ensure that content has simple punctuation. If you're particular about using commas instead of dashes, you have to include that in your writing style guide.
Do you prefer using the oxford comma in your articles? Do you want the full stop before or after quotations? These are elements that you need to make clear while putting the guide together.
American English vs British English
If you’re writing for an audience that is primarily based in the United States, punctuation, spellings, and contractions often contradict the British English form of writing. Ensure that your guidelines state which forms of writing your company prefers. For example, in American English, it is “colors”, not “colours”, “center” and not "centre".
Abbreviations and acronyms
You don’t want your readers jumping to another page to read up on an acronym or abbreviations you’ve introduced. Make sure that you state the full form of any acronyms you use to avoid confusion.
Quite a few brands have specific policies regarding how others address their brand names, especially when it comes to trademarks. Many brands prefer writing their name in lower case, spelled a certain way, and so forth and expect it to be mentioned accordingly. You want to make sure that writers get these specificities right.
Make sure your company is adding appropriate metadata, sources, and using images consistently. These guidelines could also include:
No one will use your style guide unless you make it accessible to everyone on your team. Once you’re done, ensure that you share it with your team members, new hires, freelancers, part-timers, and other third parties.
At the end of the day, creating a style guide from scratch can prove to be a hassle. Quite a few businesses develop their writing style guide by building on pre-existing ones.
Letterdrop's Sample Style Guide is a good place to start. We've covered the core basics, making sure that we’ve accounted for every element that a writing style guide generally needs.
Letterdrop lets you create a style guide for your content that writers, internal or external to your company, can access with one click while writing a post for you. We also provide a default template style guide that we use for our own business. Feel free to copy it and follow the steps outlined above to make it your own!
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