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Content Creation

How to make style guides that people will use

Gigi Griffis • 5 minutes

Keeping everybody on the same page is hard work in any discipline—and it’s particularly difficult when it comes to content.

I mean, you’re communicating high-level business goals, user profiles, calls to action, and page requirements. You’re training authors to write in a consistent voice and an appropriate tone.

On top of all this, there’s the not-so-little matter of making sure that spelling, grammar, and style flow perfectly from one page to the next—even when those pages were written by 10 different authors.


This is why we’re big advocates of having a well-thought-out style guide that’s easy for your authors to use.

Just in case you’re not clear on the whole ‘style guide’ thing, let me back up for a moment…

What exactly is a style guide?

Like design style guides, which lay out guidelines for colours, fonts, and other design elements, content or editorial style guides are a set of guidelines for making decisions about spelling, grammar, structure, and style. Style guides are one of the key elements of ContentOps, the people, processes and infrastructure that allows organisations to plan, create and deliver content that meets business goals and audience needs.

The point is to make sure that all your authors—whether a team of one or a department of 100 people—are on the same page when it comes to grammar, spelling, capitalisation, punctuation, and all the other nitty-gritty details of content creation.

The outcome of this guidance is targeted and consistent content.

The components of your style guide

So, what kind of things should a style guide contain?

Your style guide should clarify:

  • Spelling
  • Hyphenation
  • Capitalization
  • Word choice
  • Terminology
  • Sentence structure

Sometimes (and we like these times) it also includes:

  • Voice
  • Tone
  • Image selection, sizing, and alt tag guidelines
  • SEO guidelines
  • Author formatting guidelines/templates

Use examples to keep things clear

Whatever your style guide includes, it should be specific.

If you are going to describe your brand voice as fun and quirky – explain what you mean by fun and quirky.

A good way to give stylistic examples is through a simple table like these two below (you can see more of these examples here):

Our brand is… This looks like…
Compassionate Speaking directly to the user by saying “you”.Identifying our individual authors in blog posts and using “I” and along side personal stories to connect.
Our brand is… This looks like…
Personal Using parentheses to offer asides that connect with the reader.For example:

Writing another book is, quite frankly, a little terrifying (but, hey, I keep telling everybody to face their fears, so I guess I should keep doing it myself, right?).

Everything from your brand voice (as demonstrated above) to your grammatical choices should have specific guidelines and examples. If you are using the Oxford comma, explain what the Oxford comma is and give an example sentence (or two).

For example:

The Oxford Comma
In any list of three or more items, always use a comma before the and.

Correct: Content strategy, blogging, and A/B testing are key to our success.
Incorrect: Content strategy, blogging and A/B testing are key to our success.

When using a percentage, write out the full word rather than using the symbol.

Correct: Sales are up 35 percent.
Incorrect: Sales are up 35%.

For all numbers under 10, spell out the number. For all numbers 10 and over, use the numeral.

Correct: Respect is one of our values. There are 12 values.
Incorrect: Respect is 1 of our values. There are twelve values.

The more you explain and demonstrate, the less room you leave for inconsistency.

Alright, so you get it; style guides need specifics, consistency, and detail. They should be full of examples.

But what if the team can’t agree on voice, tone, and style? How do we even know what to put in the style guide?

The more I work with content, the more I realize that we are very attached to our words and our ways of doing things. Battles about commas can go on for months. People can get territorial about capitalization.

Which is why the most important thing you can do for the success of your style guide has very little to do with the guide itself…

The head chef

You need to put someone in charge of your style guide.

Choosing to include or not include the Oxford comma won’t make or break your content, or your content strategy. What’s important is that you make a decision and everyone sticks to it. Which is why someone should be empowered to make tie-breaking, final, no-ifs-ands-or-buts decisions.

This person should be a competent content professional, a good listener, and a confident decision-maker. Someone who cares about what the rest of the team has to say, but who is also comfortable making decisions—even if they disappoint people.

This doesn’t mean that the rest of the team won’t get to weigh in. It doesn’t mean that one person should make all your content decisions by him- or herself. But it does mean that battles over which words to capitalize in your headlines should not and will not stretch into eternity.

Getting people to use the guide

Okay. Now that you know what elements your style guide should include and there is someone in charge of making the final decisions, the challenge is to get your team to use the guide.

You see, authors work in a variety of different ways. Some love to flip through giant style guides, reading, searching, and memorizing. Some are focused on the task at hand and find the idea of browsing the style guide tedious and overwhelming. And still others will just assume that their way is correct and won’t even think about consulting the guide.

So how do we get all these people on the same page?

First, you need to recognize that there are a variety of ways your style guide might be used—and plan to accommodate as many of those ways as possible. You can then consider these two approaches that can make using the style guide a no-brainer:

1. Build it into your authoring platform.

Ah, technology to the rescue once again.

Many authoring platforms (from our not-so-favorite Microsoft Word to online content development platforms like the lovely GatherContent) allow you to integrate your guidelines into their systems.

Sometimes, this works a lot like a spellcheck feature—highlighting words or grammar that don’t comply with your standards and allowing authors to accept or reject changes. And sometimes, like in the case of our system, you can include style notes for your authors to consult directly on the page (we use Page Notes to outline page specific guidelines and link to the overall guide).

Whichever technology you choose, having the style guide integrated into your system is a great way to keep it top-of-mind and in use throughout the content development process.

2. Make it searchable.

Instead of sending out PDFs or handing out printed copies of the style guide, consider setting up a simple searchable, navigable website like The Economist’s style guide, Gov.uk’s content principles guide, or MailChimp’s voice and tone guide.

This prevents people from ‘losing their copy’ (in more ways than one) and it also makes it simple to search, navigate, and read up on the guidelines. Another benefit is, of course, that the guide can be easily edited and updated along the way.

It’s incredibly easy to keep an online style guide open in one browser window while you’re authoring in another—flipping back and forth to check things as needed.

Go forth and style

Style guides help your team stay on the same page. With this in mind, you should make them detailed and chock-full of examples. Put someone in charge of final decisions. And use technology to keep them top-of-mind throughout the authoring process.

Do you have any tips of your own for style guide creation, maintenance, or integration? Leave us a note in the comments. We’d love to hear from you.

How to make style guides that people will use.

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About the Author

Gigi Griffis

Content Strategist

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