The Definitive Handbook: Editorial Style Guides for Businesses

Molly McCowan Style Guides 10 Comments

Editorial style guides aren’t just for publishing companies anymore.

In fact, if you own a business, chances are that you’ve become a publisher in your own right, creating content to attract and engage potential customers. With this flood of content (social media, blog posts, website, brochures, ads, etc.) comes new priorities in marketing and branding, and consistency is at the forefront.

Your content should be consistent in voice and tone (you don’t want your blog posts to be all business while your Facebook posts are overly playful), word choice (no fluctuating between “white paper” and “whitepaper”), and more.

And the easiest way to make sure your content stays consistent is to create an editorial style guide.

What is a style guide

In the simplest terms, a style guide is a document that your teams (including freelance writers and guest contributors) can use to make sure they’re using the same words, writing style, tone, and more.

A style guide can cover how to properly use your company’s tagline, whether or not to use the serial (Oxford) comma, a list of words your company prefers (for example, “e-book,” “Ebook,” or “eBook”), the common grammar questions fielded by your content managers and editors, and more.

A basic editorial style guide includes:

  • A short blurb about your company’s mission or tagline (including how to use both if applicable).
  • Your company’s dictionary of choice (writers will default to this when they’re unsure how to spell or hyphenate a word not in your word list).
  • A section on voice and tone.
  • A list of your company’s preferred words.
  • A brief section on a few grammar trouble spots (“which” vs. “that,” how to use a semicolon, etc.).

Why do I need a style guide?

Even if your customers don’t notice that a word has been spelled differently in the past few marketing emails, they’ll subconsciously get the feeling that something’s “off” if your content is inconsistent over time. This can lead to reduced trust in your company’s services and products, which can have a negative impact on your bottom line.

Editorial style guides are essential for creating consistent, quality content. Equally important, however, is the amount of time your content managers and editors will save once you have a style guide in place.

Instead of writers approaching content managers with the same questions over and over (is it a “standalone” asset, or a “stand-alone” asset? Should I write “website” or “web site?”), they can simply refer to the style guide. The content managers will then be able to drastically reduce the amount of time they spend editing the content to match company style.

Having a style guide also gives your content managers a bit more leverage when it comes to editing the final copy—they can remind writers of company style and reference a specific page in the style guide.

Still not convinced that a style guide is all that useful?

Here are four sample sentences, written by two different freelance writers for the same company. Take a minute to read through and spot all the differences between each sentence (click on the image to enlarge it):

Writer Comparison

Make it easier for your writers—and your content managers and editors—by giving them a style guide to reference.

How to Make a Style Guide

Ready to take the plunge and create your very own editorial style guide? Here are four simple steps to get you on your way.

1. Have a One-on-One with the People Who Edit Content Before It Goes Live.

What are the issues they fix every day? What would help them polish the copy more efficiently?

Give them a questionnaire with examples of different sentences and style choices to get an idea of the style they like (or don’t like). This will help you create a dynamic, useful editorial style guide.

2. Using These Insights, Draft a Style Guide that Covers the Main Problem Areas.

Most style guides include the sections listed above, but every company is different. If you’re always revising visual design and content because the branding and colors are slightly off, include a section on design, or make a second style guide for the design department.

The key is to make it work for you. Download my free style guide template to get some ideas on what to include, and build from there.

3. Share the Style Guide with Stakeholders to Get Their Feedback.

Make this a collaborative process. Share your drafted style guide with the people who okay the final content—blog posts, print ads, social media updates, etc.—to see what they’d like to add or amend. Have a review period, and then compile the feedback and make changes where necessary.

4. Add to and Update Your Style Guide Regularly.

A style guide is a living document. When one of your editors notices writers running into the same issue over and over again, or someone makes a decision about whether to use “boardroom” or “board room,” it should be added to the guide.

Having an auto-fill field somewhere on the guide (in my free template, it’s in the footer) that shows you exactly when that document was last edited is helpful to avoid duplicating changes.

How long should a style guide be

Don’t be afraid that your style guide is too long or too short. A good style guide is one that gets used.

That being said, many corporate editorial style guides are roughly 5-15 pages long. Having a one-page quick reference sheet is a great way to help ease the transition into using the guide.

You know your company, your teams, and your workflow. Adapt my free template to best suit your needs, and have fun with it!

key takeaways

  • If your style guide is more than five pages long, make a one-page cheat sheet that will be more useful to the people who don’t write a lot of content for your company.
  • Try not to over-explain grammar: choose a few things that are often used incorrectly, and keep your explanations brief.
  • A style guide is a living document, and it should be updated regularly. Encourage feedback and ideas for revisions: it will keep your teams thinking about consistency and branding, which is always a good thing!

Molly McCowan
Molly McCowan is a professional writer and editor from Fort Collins, Colorado. As the Lead Word Nerd at Inkbot Editing, it's her job to make you look good.