Why You Need an Editorial Style Guide

By Melissa Kulm
October 13, 2021

What Is an Editorial Style Guide?

An editorial style guide is a set of documented rules or guidelines that govern your company’s content and communications. It can be compact, such as covering how to use your company name and logo. Or, it can be broad, covering voice, tone, word usage, and graphics do’s and don’ts. A style guide is usually tailored to your organization or your business.

Well-known style guides include The Chicago Manual of Style, the Microsoft Style Guide, and the Apple Style Guide. Yours doesn’t have to be as extensive as these; it can be limited to a few pages in a Google Doc.

B&W cartoon line drawing. Two people at screens. One asks "Remind me again. Is style guide one word or two?
Image credit: Mateo Burtch

What Can a Style Guide Do for Me?

A style guide ensures that all of your communication and content assets are high quality and have a consistent, single voice and tone. Have you ever read a document that sounds like three different people wrote it (because they did)? A style guide can fix that.

A style guide can save you time, too. Sterlitech, a filtration product manufacturer, collaborated with Good Words LLC to create a style guide for their business. Kristina Morris, Director of Operations, found that “we were spending too much time editing our freelancers’ content to apply rules that were only in our heads. [Working with Good Words to create] a style guide captured concrete rules and shared them with content creators.” 

Style Guide Myths

Myth #1: We’re a small business. We don’t need a style guide.

If you have more than one content creator or writer, you need to ensure that your company’s communications have a unified voice, tone, look, and feel across channels. For example, suppose a freelance writer lowercases your company name in a paragraph, and a second writer capitalizes your company name in a subsequent paragraph. This can lead to reader confusion and incorrect branding. Spelling out these rules in a style guide helps writers avoid this situation.

Having consistent capitalization, punctuation, verb tenses, formatting, and other elements in your content improves readability and portrays your company in a professional light.

Myth #2: I don’t have time.

Bootstrap your guide by starting with a template, or use an existing style guide as a base. For example, you can choose to use the Microsoft Style Guide, and capture the rules that deviate from it in a supplemental style guide document that’s specific to your company. 

At Sterlitech, Kristina Morris says, “We didn’t have time or the expertise to develop a style guide, so we asked Good Words LLC to help us. Our consultant started with a template and asked style questions we hadn’t even thought of.” Good Words LLC successfully helped them to create and publish their style guide in record time, enabling their freelance writers to adopt the guidelines as soon as possible.

Myth #3: My content creators won’t use a style guide.

Increase writer adoption by making it easy for them to adhere to your style guide. For example, build content templates that contain boilerplate text. Use automated style check tools such as Acrolinx. And finally, consider getting writer buy-in and rule ownership by soliciting feedback from them on your style guide. They may have new rules you didn’t think of.

Sample Style Guide Rules

Here at Good Words, we have our own style guide that governs all our communications, from sales emails to blog posts (like this one!). Here are some sample rules from our style guide:

Text ElementDo ThisDon’t Do This
capitalizationCapitalize:
– First word in sentences
– Proper nouns
Don’t capitalize non-proper nouns or words for emphasis.
contractionsUse common contractions, such as “can’t,” “don’t,” “it’s,” etc.
commasUse the Oxford comma, otherwise known as the serial comma. 

Example:
“…networks, servers, and cloud services.”
“…networks, servers and cloud services.”
Good Words LLCRefer to the company as one of these:
– Good Words LLC
– Good Words
Don’t refer to the company by any of these names or other variations:
– Good Words Writing
– GoodWords
– GoodWords Writing
– GW
– Good Words, LLC
linksUse link text to convey the destination page title. For example: Google

Spell out link URLs only if the document will be printed.
Don’t use a URL as link text, unless a document will be printed. For example: www.google.com
numbersSpell out numbers under 10. Use digits for 10+.
If a number starts a sentence, spell it out.
Don’t use digits for any number under 10.
Don’t start a sentence with a numeral.
titlesUse title case, like this: Title CaseDon’t use sentence case, like this: Title case

Our Tips to Get Started

  • Start now and start small! Capture just one rule at a time. A style guide is a living document; you don’t need to capture everything at once to realize a return on investment.
  • Need rules? Ask your current content creators about the writing challenges they’ve encountered. What would make writing easier for them?
  • “Keep in mind that [your style guide] is a platform to jump off from. It should change as needs of business change and customer base changes,” says Kristina Morris of Sterlitech.
  • To make your style guide more useful, consider adding guidelines about your customer personas and other audiences you write for. For example, if your audience is scientific researchers, you might include a rule to always spell out units of measure upon first mention in text.

Need help putting together your company’s first style guide? We’d love to hear from you.

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