How to write a style guide

Your brand image is how your audience recognises you and builds a relationship with your company. But maintaining a consistent corporate identity can pose a challenge when creating content for different communication channels. Even more so if you have a large team of writers who each have their own voice and writing style.

For this reason, creating an editorial style guide is one of the most crucial aspects of a marketing and branding strategy. And your company can benefit from having one, regardless of how big or small.

So what exactly is a style guide? Also sometimes referred to as brand guidelines, a style guide is a document containing the specific standards for all aspects of content creation, from writing styles and brand terminology to colour schemes and fonts. Despite containing a lot of information, a style guide is a short and user-friendly resource that contains the need-to-knows about how to convey your brand image and voice.

With this in mind, we're going to explain how to write an editorial style guide in nine simple steps. In no time, you'll be able to share it throughout your company and improve your content marketing strategy. So, let's get started!

A style guide is a reference resource that helps ensure brand consistency across all of your company's written and visual content. Within it, you'll find standards for writing, editing, formatting and design. These can then be applied to all content, from website articles and blog posts to email newsletters.

The guide should be a short document — aim for no more than four pages in total — to ensure it doesn't overwhelm those who need to refer to it. For this reason, many brands choose to split up their standards into two main guides: one for written content and one for visual content. But, this isn't a hard and fast rule. Find what works best for your company and tailor your guide accordingly.

It can help to think of a style guide as your company's internal how-to manual for content creation. It's there to assist your current content creators, but it will also help get any new employees and freelancers up to speed.

If you're designing a style guide for the first time, you need to cover the basics of your content marketing approach before anything else. You can always add to and update your style guide as your company develops. Not sure where to start? We've got you covered. In the next section, we're going to explain how to build a killer style guide.

9 steps for writing a professional style guide

Let's take a look at the essentials you need to include in your brand style guide and how to put them into one easy-to-use document. And to make things even simpler, we've broken things down into nine sections. Let's take a look.

1. Choose a style manual to follow

As any creative will know, starting from scratch can be challenging. The good news is you don't have to when writing a style guide. And this brings us to our first step: choosing an official style guide to follow.

This is an established style manual containing standards that apply to simple things like grammar, punctuation, and formatting. For example, should you use an Oxford comma? Furthermore, it also sets out how to approach more complex aspects of writing, such as citations. By using an official guide as a foundation for your own, you'll be able to drastically minimise inconsistencies in your written content.

There are many official style guides to choose from, each with a slightly different set of rules. However, this doesn't mean that one is less accurate than another. You'll need to identify the best one for your company — this usually comes down to what type of content you're writing and where it will be published.

To help narrow things down, let's take a look at the four most popular style guides that you should be aware of:

Once you have chosen a writing style guide to follow, you can start to tailor it to your company's preferences.

2. Develop your writing style

Now you've identified an official stylebook to use as the basis of your own, you'll need to add to it and adjust it to better suit your company's brand style. Here are a few ways you can do this:

  • Include preferences for terminology: for example, you might want your writers to use the term "colleagues" instead of "staff members" when referring to employees of the company.
  • Make a glossary of troublesome words: if you frequently debate the spelling or grammar of certain words, it helps to make a glossary of them. For example, stating whether it should be "eCommerce" or "e-commerce".
  • Specify divergences from the official writing style: you can include exceptions to the rules of the official writing style, provided they are still dramatically correct. For example, AP Style avoids the use of the Oxford comma, but you may want to use it.
  • Common grammar issues: you may want to use non-standard capitalisation for certain words — E.g. capitalising the word "company" when referring to your brand. If so, these should be included in your style guide.
  • Dialect: within each language, there are many dialects. These often affect things like spelling and grammar. So, if you write content for different audiences, you may choose to include guidelines on alternative spellings or terminology. For example, should your writers use "colour" or "color"?
  • Use of emojis: depending on your brand and its audience, you may allow the use of emojis in content.

3. Include branded words and phrases

Think of the term "Retweet". Before it became more prevalent in media copy, there would have been no way to search for how to spell it, whether it's hyphenated or how to use it correctly in a sentence. But you can bet that when the folks at Twitter came up with the term, they also set standards for these aspects. In particular, to ensure clarity and consistency across all forms of content regardless of the writer or editor.

For this reason, your style manual should include any unique words or phrases that your company uses as part of its brand lexicon and guidelines for usage.

4. Define industry terminology

Within your company, you're likely to use industry-specific terminology or jargon on a regular basis — particularly if you operate in a niche sector. But it's important to remember that your audience may be unfamiliar with these terms.

With this in mind, your style guide is an excellent place to include definitions and explanations of such words and phrases. You can also provide standards on when to use them. Not only will this benefit your readers, but it will also help your content writers.

5. Identify your brand's mission and core values

Your brand mission and core values are at the heart of your business. They guide the company in how to communicate with its audience to form relationships and provide value. For this reason, including them in your style guide is crucial.

One of the best ways to include your mission and core values in your company writing manual is in the form of a brand story. The reason is that a brand story is an easy and simple way of explaining to your writers and editors how and why the business was formed. In turn, this provides your creatives with clear documentation of how the business has grown and changed, which will help guide them in future developments and communication.

6. Describe your company's brand voice

Every company has its own unique brand voice. Simply put, it's the personality that a company assumes and conveys to its audience. It's an aspect of branding that remains consistent throughout all forms of content so your audience can learn to recognise it and build trust.

Your company voice should align with your values and the industry in which you operate. So, say you are a clothing brand aimed at young adults. Your brand voice could be described as anything from humourous and light-hearted to relatable and upbeat. On the other hand, a law firm could define its brand voice with words such as authoritative, knowledgeable, corporate, or professional.

7. Outline your company's tone

Often mistaken for being the same as brand voice, your company's tone is how you convey your voice. Unlike brand voice, this can change subtly throughout your written content, depending on the audience you are targeting. For example, you may feel that a friendly, upbeat tone is appropriate for your demographic. Or, if your company targets corporate clients, you'll likely need to adopt a formal tone.

Once you've identified how you want to be perceived, it helps to include examples of written content that align with your intended tone — if you get stuck, it will help to learn how to write a tone of voice guide. This will give your writers and editors a clear idea of what they are aiming for when creating content that aligns with the company's voice and tone.

8. Incorporate SEO content writing standards

SEO is an affordable and long-term method of improving your company's Google ranking and increasing organic website traffic — and that's just a few of the potential benefits! For this reason, following SEO writing standards is an excellent way of bolstering your marketing strategy.

But your writers and editors may not be so familiar with the ins and outs of how to optimise content for your website. So, to guide them, you'll want to include SEO content writing standards in your style manual. Here are a few things to cover:

  • Headers: outline best practices for when to use headers and what size they should be. This will help increase the chance of Google picking up things like a featured snippet or listicle.
  • Links: outline any internal website links to include, along with valuable sources to link to.
  • Word counts: set healthy word counts for articles and blog posts.
  • Images: include guidelines for image sizes on your website.

9. Outline logo and design guidelines

Standards for aspects of branding such as logos, fonts, colour schemes, and graphic designs are often included in a separate guide. But written content often goes hand in hand with visual elements. For this reason, we'd recommend including the most crucial standards pertaining to branded visuals in your style guide.

For example, include guidelines for logo usage. Your logo should be the most recognisable aspect of your brand. To achieve this, you need to ensure it is used consistently. So, provide your creatives with the information they need to be able to do this. If you have variations of your logo that are intended to be used for different content, make it clear when they should be used. It is also worth identifying the smallest size at which your company logo is clear and legible on both paper and on a screen.

Similarly, it can also help to give guidance on how many words can fit on different sizes of paper in the company's chosen font and text size.

If you're still in need of some guidance or inspiration when creating your style guide, we've got you covered. Below are some examples of brand style guides to check out from well-known companies:

A style guide is one of the most crucial aspects of a marketing and branding strategy. The reason is that it helps ensure consistency in the content your company puts out across different forms of media, regardless of how many creatives are involved in the process. And this consistency is how your audience begins to recognise your brand. From this, a relationship built on trust can begin to form.

But to create consistent content, you need to provide your writers and editors with some key pieces of information. With this in mind, there are nine aspects a brand style guide should cover:

  1. The basics of grammar and punctuation — use an official established style manual to cover the basics
  2. Details about writing style — include divergences from the official style guide
  3. A glossary of branded words and phrases, and how to use them
  4. A glossary of industry terminology with definitions
  5. A brand story, including core values and the brand's mission
  6. An outline of the company's brand voice
  7. Description of the company's tone, with examples
  8. SEO content writing standards
  9. Logo and design guidelines

The final thing to remember is to not consider your house style guide as being set in stone. Your brand is likely to grow and change over time, due to things like new business development opportunities or industry trends. You may also need to refresh your brand from time to time. For this reason, your style guide should evolve with your company and be regularly updated to keep everyone on the same page. Well, in this case, keep things the same on every page or otherwise!