What is a style guide? (And why you need one)

A style guide can help when things aren't so black and whiteWhat’s one thing you can do to transform everything you write at work?

In fact, not just what you write: what your colleagues write too – even everyone in your entire organisation.

Better still, as well as improving the emails, reports, letters, proposals and other documents you all produce, it can overhaul everyone’s experience of writing.

So what is this magical act?

Well, it’s taking the time to think about style. (And no, I don’t mean what to wear on casual Friday.) Specifically, working with a style guide.

Defining style

And what is a style guide?

In short, it’s the go-to reference for writing within a particular industry, organisation or publication. It outlines how to write the key documents in whatever arena it covers, touching on tone of voice, key terms, formatting and (sometimes) design.

Style guides are particularly great at coming to the rescue on any questions that don’t have an easy black-and-white, right-or-wrong answer.

This would include things like whether to put one or two spaces after a full stop, how to punctuate bullet points, using US or UK spelling and how to style your company name in running text. (And hasn’t every workplace or department temporarily ground to a halt at some point, as factions gathered to fight over such a matter?)

When a question can be answered only in shades of grey, someone needs to make a style choice. They’ll decide that – for example – they’ll always use one space after a full stop, US spelling and an initial capital for their company name. And then everyone at the company will always do it that way.

Style guides are the norm in the publishing world. But you’ll find them in all kinds of fields, including law, medicine, academia, government – and increasingly in business too.

Do you need one?

Is a style guide right for you and your company?

Yes, probably.

That may seem like a bold statement (I don’t know you, after all). But it’s a safe guess, because a style guide can help people at almost every level of almost any organisation.

For example, if you’re a team leader who spends too much time editing colleagues’ documents and emails before you’re happy with them, a style guide can help.

If you’re the head of marketing and frustrated that the tone of voice in your company’s external documents is at odds with your brand, a style guide can help.

And if you find yourself heading to Google again and again over the same sort of questions – you may have guessed already. Yes, a style guide could definitely help.

What style can do for you

So, what benefits can a style guide bring?

Well, it can help to settle office arguments. But it can do much more than that.

When everyone has the same reference point, the key benefit is consistency. And for a company’s or organisation’s written output – whether that’s documents, webpages, letters, emails or all of the above – this is vital.

Small inconsistencies in spelling, formatting or tone may not seem like a big deal. But they can niggle at the people reading them – even if those people don’t realise quite why.

Page by page, or screen by screen, those little irregularities chip away at their confidence in your company.

How about that overstretched team leader? Consistency’s important for them too. After all, it could mean the difference between needing just 20 minutes to sign off their team’s work or several hours and another late night at the office.

And it’s not just the time – it’s the decisions themselves. With no authority giving a casting vote on style matters, the poor team leader is left to decide every time. That can be exhausting.

Research suggests we have capacity for only a limited number of decisions a day, even the seemingly tiny ones. So, finding ways to bypass some of them means preserving a valuable resource: your mental energy.

This saving naturally extends to every person writing within the organisation – which, in the age of email, is probably almost everyone. With just one handy reference to check, all are saved from falling into a potential black hole of online searching.

Pick a guide (not just any guide)

But how do you go about choosing the style guide for your organisation?

You can choose to use someone else’s, such as the highly regarded, informed and eloquent guides of The Economist and Guardian. As long as everyone at your workplace knows which one they’re supposed to check, this can work.

However, the best style guides are effective because they’re relevant: everything in them applies to the work that people at the organisation actually do. For most of us, that doesn’t include writing articles for the Guardian.

When you try to bend someone else’s guidance to your needs, you can find yourself stuck with a lot of information that’s of little use to you. (For example, the Guardian‘s guide includes a curiously detailed entry on canal boats, and how narrowboats differ from barges.) Meanwhile, you’ll probably also be missing areas you do need.

So you might want to refine your search.

For a more business-focused book, you could look no further than our own. We produced The Write Stuff as a universal guide to help people write at work. That’s why it includes sections on writing for the web and for a global audience, tips for clear writing and getting the best from email. Plus, of course, our take on those tricky style issues.

It’s designed to answer the kinds of questions that you’re likely to face at work. You can download it for yourself here.

Build your own

The ultimate answer is to develop your own guide, purpose-built for your organisation.

But how do you go about this?

You don’t have to start from scratch. Instead, start by looking at what’s already out there to see what could be covered, then adapt it to fit as needed.

Then pin down the questions that crop up repeatedly in your department or company. Which decisions have to be made over and over again? Which words and terms cause problems or dispute? Is the company name formatted in too many different ways? What tone of voice are you hoping to encourage? What values best sum up your company ethos? How can this be reflected in your writing choices? Gather examples to illustrate all these points – you’ll need to include these.

Create a list, then ask other people to look at the list and add their own ideas.

Keep in mind that this isn’t a place to catalogue everyone’s personal punctuation bugbears or to explain complex grammatical issues. (The latter might require training; the former may be best reserved for a personal blog.)

Remember that you’re aiming to end up with a useful resource for quick reference.

Making it work

Clearly, even the best guide will do little good if no one uses it or even knows it exists.

So bring your colleagues into the process early on: ask them for their thoughts on drafts and for feedback on the finished article. They’re more likely to take it to their hearts if they don’t feel like it’s merely the product of one person’s mission.

When it’s published, consider having a launch event to get people on board and enthusiastic – you could even combine the launch with training.

And make the guide easy to find. A searchable online version is good, as long as it’s not buried on your intranet. But if you really want to encourage people to thumb through it regularly, go old-school and put a hard copy on everyone’s desk.

We can help

Even for a seasoned editor, all this can sound like a daunting task. If it does to you, that’s OK. You can enlist some experienced help.

We’ve worked with many clients to create guides that are a perfect fit for their company. Starting with The Write Stuff as a basis, we work directly with them to see what we need to add (or subtract). For example, one client added a section on how to write for PowerPoint. Another cut ‘Writing for a global audience’ and added guidance on referencing and bibliographies.

And whatever additions or subtractions make sense for your team or organisation, by consulting every step of the way we can create the reference that is exactly what you need.

If you’d like to talk to us about developing the right guide for your company, get in touch.

Finding the answers

Writing at work comes with all kinds of challenges. It involves hundreds of tiny decisions along the way and – as we’ve said before – there’s no one authority on high to tell us what’s ‘correct’ in the widest sense.

The good news is that that doesn’t really matter. Within the cosier confines of your daily working life – and with the right book on your desk – you can still have all the answers you really need in one place.

If you feel it’s time for you to settle on a style for your team or organisation, don’t forget you can download our guide, The Write Stuff, here. And if you’d like to talk to us about helping to develop one tailor-made for you, get in touch.

Image credit: Eric Isselee / Shutterstock

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