Pop quiz: What’s the most overlooked, under-baked, and ignored tool that a brand pumping content into the world needs to have?

If you guessed an editorial style guide, swell … you’re thinking out of the box already.

Let’s cut to the chase: You need one. Your writers need one. And in the world of content domination, your company’s reputation may depend on having one.

Why? Because without it, you’re asking your content teams to reach a destination without a map and compass. And if they don’t know where they’re going or how to get there, you may have to do some explaining to your CMO when their expectations don’t match your outcomes.

Why guide, why?!

A style guide defines the consistent feel, taste, and smell of a brand’s content personality, writes @KLundT3 Click To Tweet

Leave journalists-turned-business writers to their own devices, and they’ll nobly muse they’re changing the world with their pearly nuggets. They’ll write how they want, in the voice they want, with little regard for the commercial value that editorial brand standards have to your firm. But, at some point, your content marketing strategy is designed to make a buck. If the writers don’t know the rules of engagement your brand requires, they unwittingly undermine your strategy.

Essentially, an editorial style guide gets everyone who touches your content on the same page, holds them accountable, and lays out how your copy should read – giving it that recognizable feel, taste, and smell of your brand’s personality.

Bottom line: If you expect your content to deliver a desired business outcome and abide by brand standards, you’ll need to set up clear rules for voice, style, and tone and let your writers flourish within them. So, make sure it’s all in the style guide.

The anatomically correct style guide

First off, don’t conflate the editorial style guide with the design style guide. Your writers don’t need to know if buttercup yellow is in your corporate color palette. But they do need to know if your company spells the word “color” as “colour.”

The essentials of an editorial style guide can be summed up in three parts:

  1. Your why – the brand’s purpose
  2. Your how – voice and tone
  3. Your what – words that make you, you

Your why – the brand’s purpose. By now, you may have heard of Simon Sinek’s concept of leading with your why. The gist of it is to stop talking about your product attributes and go to market talking about why you do what you do and how you make a difference in the world (i.e., “We disrupt conventional wisdom and reduce human stress by creating a better-smelling world. And by the way, we do this with litter-less cat boxes. Want one?”).

Your editorial style guide is a great place to refine and document your key messaging, brand positioning, and values your content should reflect – not the product’s unique selling propositions (USPs) and sales patter, but what your brand believes in for those things to matter. Writers can then echo and emulate these messages so that all of your content reflects a consistent brand personality.

Keep it short – a paragraph or two. It’s meant to be background information, so the writers understand they need to take their cat box 101 knowledge to an otherworldly level.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qp0HIF3SfI4]


Your how – voice and tone. This is your content personality. Like any form of communication, good content is all about the words you choose. Your voice is what you say – i.e., your attitude across all of your content – while tone colors how you say it to suit each situation.

Take voice: “Casual” isn’t enough information to define voice by itself, but “optimistic” starts to point in the right direction. Try to come up with four to five key adjectives like this to describe your voice and define what you mean. For example:

Our voice is …

  • plain-spoken – we don’t use jargon or “big words.” Keep it eye level. Use shorter sentences and a staccato cadence.
  • accessible – we’re easy on the ears, with a hint of wit to make a point, like your Uncle Fred. We’re clear and we use simple, direct language. (But we won’t ask you to pull our finger.)

Tone, on the other hand, describes the nuances for each target audience, depending on who you’re writing for (i.e. the difference between addressing a wealthy yacht-voyaging imbiber named Randolph versus a beer-drinking weekender named Bubba). Each responds to certain language choices and references in different ways.

A brand’s tone – how it uses language – should shift to suit each target audience, writes @KLundT3 Click To Tweet

In a style guide, this could mean documenting adjusted tone guidelines for when targeting a B2B enterprise executive versus a B2C consumer.

To start the process, ask your style guide-planning team what your brand is and what it is not. Or for a fun exercise, create a sliding scale between two opposite personality traits (e.g. optimist/alarmist, hilarious/serious) and have each member of your team plot where your company falls. Then, come up with the best word to describe what you are and the exact opposite (what you are not). When you’re done, you should have something like:

Our tone is …

  • smart, not pedestrian – not rocket-science smart, just slightly smarter than the reader.
  • reassuring, not patronizing – like a BFF, without the OMG.
  • amusing, not heavy – always fun and easy to read, like this article.

Once you have it all figured out, be sure to write your style guide in the voice and tone you want your content written in.

Your what – the words that make you, you. After your why and how comes your what – or, more specifically, the rule of law that dictates the language and words to be used – or avoided.

  • Formalities. When it comes to tuxedo correctness, most of the generally accepted principles of grammar and style can be found in the Associated Press Stylebook and The Chicago Manual of Style. Alternatively, if you want to loosen it up a little, a rising star is The BuzzFeed Style Guide. Be sure to pick one and state this clearly. Your copy editor will thank you. For everything else, read on.
  • Company “isms.” Your colloquialisms, that is. This catch-all list of stylistic corporate pedanticisms should include things not found in the formal style guide that are unique to your company, such as certain word usages (indexes vs. indices), and styles (no serial comma, no spaces around dashes, capitalize all m’s in MoMMa).
  • Formal spellings. For the English language, Webster’s New World College Dictionary or the Oxford English Dictionary are the two most commonly used dictionaries in publishing. Point out which is your de facto, but please, leave Urban Dictionary out of it, even if you’re Urban Dictionary.
  • Special spellings. You may be thinking, “My writers should already know how to spell everything, thank you.” OK, how will they spell e-commerce? Or is that eCommerce? Maybe it’s ecommerce? The same word spelled three different ways across your content is a rookie mistake – and creates inconsistencies your audience will notice. Help your all-too-smart writers out and address these before the hair-pulling ensues.
  • Grammarlies. These might list a few nitpicks of grammar that might be more about consistency than simple right or wrong, such as the use of contractions and addressing the ever-popular semicolon vs. em dash smackdown.
  • He said, she said. Tell your writers which way to go on pronouns – i.e., they and them, or he/him and she/her.” (And yes, they and them are now acceptable as both singular and plural in most official style guides. Hallelujah.)

Good to great

Putting the nuances of words and style behind us, a couple more think-throughs will help you create your gold-standard style guide.

Size matters. Since your style guide is made for people by people, have some humanity. The shorter the better, but five to 15 pages seems to be the sweet spot for most. More than 15 and I’ve already forgotten what was on page one. What does your company do again?

Whatever you end up with, it’s worth your time to create a one- or two-page cheat sheet for your writers with the most common things they need to make You, Inc. sound like you.

Do’s and don’ts by example. This is the optional practice-what-you-preach section of the style guide, where you get to provide two or three examples of prose that illustrate the information in the guide and demonstrate what your content should sound like. For example:

“Be careful where you tread because a Venus’ flytrap sounds better on paper than it is in real life. The plant-ish killer of flies will not control your pest problem as well as a good old-fashioned fly swatter.”

Why it works:

  • The point is clear.
  • No jargon.
  • It’s amusing.

Final thoughts

Once you’ve created your style guide, think of it as the first draft. It’s a living document that should change as your marketing strategy changes. The voice you develop today may be dated tomorrow, and the lexicon once used by your audience may vanish into irrelevance to make way for new words, phrases, and usages. For example, “hang loose” once meant “chill, bro.” Those still using the former haven’t updated their style guide since 1984 and will not be selling surfboards to today’s 15-year-olds.

Some writers, particularly old-school journalists, often assume the style guide is the responsibility of the copy editor or proofreader and expect them to make all the necessary corrections so they don’t have to think about it. But many content teams don’t have a dedicated copy editor. (CCO does, thank you very much.) So, it’s a bit lazy and discourteous for writers to assume they can write whatever and however they want and someone else will magically knock it into the right shape. That’s why you have a style guide.

Obviously, there are myriad reasons why you should have a style guide. So, the next time you think you can get by without one, flick yourself. It’s worth the investment in time and money to create one. And if you can preserve the sanity of just one writer with a well-written style guide, it was worth it.