If you have a style guide, carry on. If you haven’t updated your style guide in five years, don’t have one at all, or are wondering, “what’s a style guide?” you’ll want to read on.
You may have a go-to writer that knows the ins and outs of your brand. Or maybe you have an entire team that just gets every project.
This won’t always be the case.
Your go-to writer may find a new client. Or multiple team members may move to another company at a similar time. Even if just one moves on, wa wealth of experience goes along with them. And even if you replace them with the best writers–the ones really good at tackling projects with minimal information–they’ll be left at a disadvantage. It’ll leave you asking, “But so-and-so got it, why doesn’t this writer?”
They absolutely can “get” it. But they need some background information to get it right (or close to right) the first time.
What’s a style guide?
A style guide is a how-to for your brand. In addition to writing guidelines, it often includes design standards (logo, colors, dos and don’ts). Anyone with a copy of the guide should know exactly how to tackle a project for your brand.
But do I really need a style guide?
Short answer: yes.
Long answer: When you don’t have a style guide, your writers are left guessing what you like–and what you don’t. Even the most thorough kickoff call can’t prep a writer for every brand nuance. And, generally, the writer is going to focus on the larger strategy and goal of the project, not whether or not you prefer the term customers over clients or vice versa.
Having a guide, while it won’t solve everything, can ensure your writers are better equipped to deliver a first draft that’s much closer to the final draft.
I’ve worked with clients who not only have no style guide, but haven’t even thought about how they want to sound. When multiple C-level individuals have different ideas of what a website should sound like, you can bet the writer is going to miss the mark (and continue to miss the mark).
If the writer is missing the big picture of your brand, they’re certainly not going to know that last week you decided in a meeting that you want to avoid talking about your brand
A style guide allows you to have those critical conversations before projects get underway. It ensures everyone is on the same page.
What should a style guide include?
While your designers may have recommendations for what they need or want in a style guide your writers will want the following:
- Descriptors: These are words you use to describe your brand. For example, Kate Sitarz Copywriting is approachable, professional, fresh. But you also want to include what your brand is not. You can have two lists or the two in contrast to each other. For example, Kate Sitarz is professional, but never stuffy.
- Tone: While the descriptors will help your writer get a feel for your tone, you’ll also want to include key words and phrases that your brand would use (and, again, ones you wouldn’t use).
- Point of view: As copywriters, it’s best practice to talk directly to the prospective customers (you) and refer to the brand, as needed, in the first person (we vs. it/they). Some brands, however, prefer to talk in the third person.
- Editorial style: You may create separate editorial guidelines in addition to your brand style guide. While your copywriter wants to know more about your tone, it’s also helpful for them to know whether you follow AP or Chicago style (or have your own style that mixes them). This can help ensure they’re using the Oxford comma (or not), know whether to use sentence case or initial caps, whether to spell out numbers or use numerals, and generally make life easier for your copyeditor (if you have one!).
While those elements are essential, you may also opt to add other sections. For example, if you have many different people across your brand writing copy, particularly if some are not copywriters, you may opt to include some copywriting basics like leading with the benefit within a headline or sentence, using active over passive tense, and including a clear call to action in each piece.
You may also opt to include common word counts, and update those as you notice what performs well for your audience (and what doesn’t). For example, you want to keep subject lines under 60 characters so they aren’t truncated in your audiences’ inboxes, but perhaps you find that 35 characters is the sweet spot for increasing open rates.
How do you use the style guide?
Once you create your style guide, the purpose isn’t to print it and stuff it in a drawer. You’ll want to distribute to anyone who may be writing for your brand.
You’ll also want to continuously revisit and update.
A style guide is meant to be a living document. I recommend using a platform like Google docs so everyone has easy access to it, you can easily share it with freelancers or contractors, and so you can update it as you add words to your lexicon.
Need help creating a style guide?
Let’s talk and get started putting this important document together for your brand.