What's a style guide? Why do you need one?

A style guide helps you to quickly and cost-effectively publish content that is of a consistent quality. It is particularly important when lots of editors and authors involved are in the publishing process.

A good style guide takes a lot of time and effort to create. Also, unless its implementation is policed, it will not achieve its objectives.

“As before, this guide is to help Microsoft writers and editors maintain consistency within and across products. It is not a set of rules.”

This is part of an introduction to a Microsoft style guide.

Imagine for a moment that this was a guide for how Microsoft writes software. Let's paraphrase it: This guide is to help Microsoft programmers maintain consistency in how code is written; it is not a set of rules.

Most organizations are accidental publishers. Managers look around one day and find their intranets and public Web sites full of content. And they wonder how they are to manage all this content.

Encouraging people to do the right thing is one approach. It doesn't always work. It is also very time consuming. Most traditional publications I have worked for were run in a dictatorial manner. The editor ruled.

Editors need to make decisions quickly because it is very hard to make publishing pay. It is also the case that writers have huge egos. If you pander to them too much, you will never get the product out the door. Or you will end up with content that is all compromise and no style.

A style guide is a “rules of the road” for a particular publication. It covers…

  1. Definition of target reader

  2. Description of style and tone

  3. Description of key Web-writing conventions

  4. A-Z of usage

  5. References

A style guide should begin with a definition of the top 3 to 5 audiences that the Web site is trying to reach. This is crucial in establishing alignment within the organization on what the core purpose of the site is.

A clear description of the style and tone should follow.

The Web tends to be well suited to a second-person, active style. Samples should be given of the correct style. A decision needs to be made with regard to using American or global English.

Key Web writing conventions need to cover such things as…

  • Length of content

  • Writing headings and summaries

  • Writing effective links

The A-Z of usage will cover issues such as…

  • How to date documents

  • Key spelling conventions, such as e-mail or email?

  • Common grammatical issues, such as abbreviations, quotations, collective nouns

The final section of your style guide should approve a standard dictionary and grammar guide. It might also link to useful Web sites.

Putting a quality style guide together is a time-consuming and difficult process. You need to get buy-in throughout the organization. Various parties should have the opportunity to make suggestions and review drafts.

When your style guide is launched, it needs to be well promoted. Training sessions need to be organized. Editors need to ensure that writers are adhering to the agreed style and tone. Content that does not meet the style and tone must be edited or rejected.

Content is an asset. A style guide is a tool to help you coax the best out of that asset.

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image of Gerry McGovern
Gerry McGovern (gerry@gerrymcgovern.com) is a content management consultant and author. His latest book is The Stranger's Long Neck: How to Deliver What Your Customers Really Want Online, which teaches unique techniques for identifying and measuring the performance of customers' top tasks.