A content style guide is a set of rules that establishes grammar, language, tone, and formatting. The essential components of a business style guide come together to form a road map to clear, consistent communication—both internally across departments and externally with target audiences.
Having a central, living document ensures that marketing, sales, creative, support, and HR teams are on the same page with the language, fonts, colors, and images. The accurate, authentic, and consistent brand presentation across all platforms is the key to maintaining professionalism, building trust with audiences, and exuding value.
Staff members relying on a style guide will have all the information they need to perform to expected standards consistently. Style guides are essential as a brand scales up in size, changes scope, or starts a new campaign.
Grammarly Business leads businesses through what to include in a content style guide and makes the document easy to create. If your team struggles to keep up with a constant stream of emails, updates, and project specifications, a style guide can help.
What to include in a style guide
Voice and tone
Developing a cohesive brand voice and tone is one of the biggest challenges for companies, as many people must write as though they are one.
For example, Slack’s best practices guidance for voice and tone goes into detail on the tone they’d like to achieve with their bot communications, asking writers to use personality, but not too much personality. This means “avoiding torturous puns or wordplay that distracts from the meaning.”
Slack also suggests writing should be gender-inclusive. They recommend contractions and conversational cadence to infuse human nature into the correspondence. They urge staff members to be brief, clear, and empathetic, using examples of what to do and what not to do in pursuing these goals. For instance, to be clear:
The example above includes a reference to an obscure film that’s likely to confuse many more users than it delights. The emoji combination is also potentially confusing and may stall some users as they try to decipher it (‘Fire… meat? Firemeat?’). Read over your copy and ask yourself, ‘Is there anywhere a user may pause in confusion?’ If so, rewrite.”
“Try to write copy for your interactions that someone who doesn’t speak your language fluently could easily understand. That means:
The example above includes a reference to an obscure film that’s likely to confuse many more users than it delights. The emoji combination is also potentially confusing and may stall some users as they try to decipher it (‘Fire… meat? Firemeat?’).
Read over your copy and ask yourself, ‘Is there anywhere a user may pause in confusion?’ If so, rewrite.”
Many businesses direct teams to already established and widely accepted style guides, such as MLA, APA, or Chicago. Sometimes different segments of the industry use other guidelines. For instance, you may use MLA when writing topics in humanities, but APA when writing for history or science.
In NASA’s style guide, they note:
“In general, NASA history authors, editors, proofreaders, and printers should follow The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed. (2010). Exceptions and frequently recurring expressions are noted in this guide.”
NASA deviates from The Chicago Manual of Style in this case:
“ In capitalizing titles, follow Chicago, with these exceptions:
- capitalize prepositions of five or more letters (e.g., ‘Within,’ ‘Before’)
- capitalize ‘to’ when it is part of the infinitive form of a verb (e.g., ‘To Run’) because in that case, it is not acting as a preposition.”
Grammar rules vary among native vs. non-native speakers, location, and preference. The AP Stylebook, Chicago Manual of Style, the MLA Style Manual, and the NY Times all have slightly different rules governing the words and sentences used in writing.
For example, Mail Chimp’s style guide encourages writers to:
“Use active voice. Avoid passive voice. Active voice, the subject of the sentence does the action. Passive voice, the subject of the sentence has the action done to it.
- Yes: Marti logged into the account.
- No: The account was logged into by Marti.
One exception is when you want to emphasize the action over the subject specifically. In some cases, this is fine. For example, your account was flagged by our Abuse team.”
There are 14 standard punctuation marks in American English to let readers know where pause or emphasis is necessary. Their use often boils down to stylistic preferences. Sometimes the meaning of a sentence can change with punctuation.
“Use commas to separate items in a series, and use commas to separate certain kinds of clauses. In a series of three or more items, use a comma before the final and or.
- Yes: I dedicate this book to my parents, Ayn Rand, and God.
- No: I dedicate this book to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”
Brand spelling and spacing rules
Using proper spelling and spacing ensures that a brand is professional and first-rate. One misspelling can derail a page and send prospects elsewhere. Most style guides mention commonly misspelled or misused words or industry-specific spellings that may be open to interpretation.
“Do not include hyphens in gerunds: “rulemaking” rather than “rule-making.”
Use “on-site” as an adjective or adverb before a noun and “on site” after a noun
- Yes: a web page, not a webpage.
- Yes: website, not web site.
- Yes: email, not e-mail.
- Yes: online, not on-line.
- Yes: Eastern Time or ET; not EST or EDT.”
Sometimes there is no right or wrong spelling — as seen in the examples above — but having one guideline to follow helps employees and exudes consistency. Brands may also choose to follow British-English, Canadian, or American-English spellings, depending on where their workers, customers, or clients are based.
AP or MLA rules provide basic capitalization rules that can be applied to any business. For instance, the AP Stylebook recommends:
- Capitalize proper nouns and proper names: John, Mary, Nelson, Facebook.
- Capitalize common nouns such as party, river, and street when part of a proper name: Democratic Party, Ohio River, Poynter Street.
- Lowercase common nouns when they stand alone: the party, the river, the street.
- Lowercase, the common noun element of names in all plural, uses the Democratic and Republican parties, Nelson and Poynter streets, lakes Erie, and Ontario.
- In general, capitalize formal titles used directly before a name. Lowercase and spell out when not used with an individual name: The president issued a statement.
- Use lowercase at all times for terms that are job descriptions rather than formal titles. Note that first lady is a courtesy title and is never capitalized.
However, a brand can also establish personality in choosing what to capitalize or what not to capitalize. For instance, the video interviewing platform interviewstream uses all lower case for the names of its products — an unusual decision, but one that helps them appear more playful and stand apart from the crowd.
Style and tone variations
Variations in writing style from channel to channel are rare, as most companies prefer to maintain a cohesive, consistent voice. However, differences in tone can be appropriate in certain situations. Just as a single person can shift tone based on mood or feelings, a brand can change tone based on audience, campaign, or content type.
Generally speaking, landing pages and CEO emails should use a more formal tone than blogs or social media posts. For example, a campaign aimed at Baby Boomers might sound very different from a campaign targeting Gen Z.
Acronyms and preferred language
Acronyms are abbreviations that can affect clarity, voice, and tone when not used properly. What needs to go in a style guide are guidelines around preferred language or word choices, and specifications of what terms, language, or acronyms are internal use only.
For instance, the Expedia Group offers a “practical guide for terms that matter,” such as:
- Average daily rate (ADR)
The average rate achieved across all room types in a given time period. This is calculated by dividing room revenue by rooms sold.
- Best available rate (BAR)
This property’s publicly available base rate doesn’t require pre-payment and doesn’t impose additional cancellation fees outside of their standard policy. It’s also commonly used for comparison between properties.
- Central reservation system (CRS)
A system used by multiple hotels in a chain to maintain hotel information, inventories, rates and facilitate reservations.
Why you need a content style guide
Ultimately, the purpose of a style guide is to build brand cohesion. Consumers who repeatedly engage with a cohesive brand will become aware of the brand’s value, trust what the brand is conveying, and reward the company with long-term loyalty.
Enterprises Implement style guides to resolve several challenges, including:
1 Improve customer-facing communication
Stylized branding ensures clarity and consistency in any material presented to the public on behalf of the company. Collectively, your customer-facing communications set realistic expectations of what the company has to offer while fostering greater trust between employees and customers when the same standard is upheld across all channels.
2 Increase employee confidence in representing the company
Style guides are not just for copywriters, editors, social media marketers, and web developers. Anyone who communicates with a customer in writing can benefit from the style guide, including sales and offline marketing departments, customer service representatives, and technical support teams.
3 Enhance communication consistency across channels and teams
Communication often breaks down between writer and editor or between different departments, especially when there is no prevailing opinion to settle a particular matter. A style guide leaves no ambiguity and serves as an impartial judge when quarreling over which font to use, embracing the Oxford comma, or determining if managers inadvertently contribute to a hostile workplace culture through their use of a particular tone.
Developing a company-wide style guide from scratch is a massive undertaking. Still, with the proper steps and technology on your side, you can simplify this process and start reaping the benefits of more uniform communication.
Using a tool like Grammarly Business can guide you through creating, updating, and consolidating style guides for your organization. Our highly customized, real-time writing assistant coaches your staff to write better and confidently, saving editors and supervisors significant time.