Like a brand messaging document, a content style guide helps your brand communicate consistently across all its channels, and particularly within your product. Basically, it’s a rulebook for communication.
Your company may have a single brand style guide covering both visuals and content, or it may divide it into two documents:
- Visual style, which includes items like your logo, taglines, color palettes, typography, and is typically used by designers
- Content style, which covers voice, tone, vocabulary, grammar, punctuation, and formatting, and is typically used by writers
With a content style guide in place, writers (and teams of writers working together) have a place to turn to when they have questions about which term or capitalization convention to choose (and so much more).
Why do you need a style guide?
Sure, fonts, colors, and logos make your brand recognizable, but the right words are also essential for building trust and loyalty with your audience. Customers watch what you say and how you say it to determine whether you are relatable and trustworthy and how you compare to your competitors. Within your product, users look for consistent terminology to determine how to proceed. If a term changes, the user might get lost within the product.
A content style guide lays out the strategy for your UX copy—what guides and motivates you, what lies behind it—as well as tactical tips and examples, such as do’s and don’ts. If your content style guide is good, you can hand it over to both in-house writers and freelancers and feel confident that they’ll be able to maintain your voice and style, including knowing where to play with the tone and where to keep it straightforward. A good style guide also saves editors time and helps them avoid having to answer the same questions over and over.
What should a content style guide include?
Your guide should include information about your brand’s voice, tone, and style (including mechanics). It’s helpful to include highlights from your audience personas, so writers know who they are talking to, understand their pain points, and appreciate the benefits they’re looking for in your product.
Once you know who you’re talking to, you can determine your brand’s voice and tone. For example, how formal or how serious will you be? Will you use humor or sarcasm, or will you keep your language professional? These components will set you apart from your competition and give your brand its personality.
HubSpot describes its brand voice this way:
At MailChimp, writers use clear, professional language with a dry sense of humor, but they never take their humor too far. They describe their tone this way:
When you’re clear on voice and tone, you can then be more specific about your language style, or how you’ll use language in your writing.
Within its content style guide, MailChimp also has sections that guide writers in a more “concrete” way. For example, the “Word List” guides writers on spelling certain words—e.g., “email (never hyphenate, never capitalize unless it begins a sentence)” and “emoji (singular and plural)”; it also lists words to avoid. A section called “Grammar and Mechanics” lays out the rules for things like:
- When to capitalize
- How to write numbers and fractions
- Whether to use contractions
- When it’s okay to use emojis (or, rather, emoji)
And yes, MailChimp does use the Oxford comma.
Monzo Bank feels pretty strongly about passive voice, so it goes to great lengths to ensure writers understand what that means and choose the active version.
Here’s an example of when a content style guide comes in handy. Let’s say you want to create a new form as part of your platform. You’ve recently brought a new writer on board, so they will need guidance around certain elements to make sure their writing matches previously written content. Your content style guide may contain a section on writing web copy that includes:
- How to format text on navigation menus
- What to include in the Alt-text field
- Specific words to use for button text
- How to capitalize the text in drop-down menus and form fields
- How to format headings, sub-headings, and lists
Many style guides will also include a list of commonly used words (with exact spellings, hyphenations, and abbreviations) and a list of words to avoid, especially if the industry is evolving quickly.
How to create a content style guide
Marketing, branding, or content departments are typically responsible for creating style guides. Designers may also weigh in on style guides that include visual style components and address UX copy.
To create an effective style guide, you’ll need to have a good grasp on:
- Your users – Who are they? What are their pain points, needs, and goals?
- Previous content – What types of content have you produced thus far? Where does it “live”? How did it perform?
- Brand goals
- Stakeholders – What are their priorities?
- Your competitors and their content tactics
New Haven-based branding and design agency iMPACT recommends hosting a brand messaging workshop, followed by a style guide workshop before you start writing your guide. In a workshop, a small group (about three to five people) from different departments and with different roles and levels of experience works together to unravel what you (the company) do, why you do it, and how you want to be perceived, so you can decide what to include in your style guide.
Of course, not every company has the team or resources for a full-scale workshop. A growing startup, for example, may have to be scrappy and have the writer take the lead on documenting what’s been done thus far and what will be done going forward. It can be a tedious task, but it’s worth it to avoid having to do “recon” later on once the team has grown and everyone needs to be on the same page.
Many companies choose to use a conventional style guide, such as the Chicago Manual of Style, Associated Press Stylebook, or Modern Language Association Stylebook (MLA,) as a launching point and then expand from there to include their product’s particular use cases.
One of the pitfalls of a content style guide is that it can easily turn into a massive, confusing document. To keep it manageable and useful to writers, create clearly defined sections with headings and subheads. Include examples that show what to do and what not to do, like Monzo Bank does here:
If you’re not sure where to start, you may want to start off by looking at examples, such as MailChimp’s, the Content section of Shopify Polaris, or iMPACT’s Content Style Guide template. Take stock of things like:
- Capitalization (across components)
- Date format
- Spelling conventions
- Temperature format
and set rules for how you want to present each one. Try to include do’s and don’ts from your product to drive each point home.
And remember: just as your product evolves, your content style guide should evolve, too, to reflect that. It will need maintenance as copy needs and choices change.