Article: Style guides: if content is king, consistency must be queen

Author: Katie Silvester
Date: Katie Silvester

Any company that generates a lot of content would benefit from having a style guide. If you’re not familiar with the concept of a style guide, they are documents that publishers use to ensure consistency throughout a publication. Helpfully, the Guardian has its online

A style guide is different to brand guidelines or tone of voice. It should cover which words are capitalised and which are not, which terms are hyphenated and what format dates should appear in: 3 January 2018, January 3, 2018 or 3.1.18?

There are many other style choices to make in written English and your website, digital communications or printed marketing collateral will look more professional if these are consistent. Should there be a space between a number and a unit following it or not (3cm or 3 cm)? Should per cent be written out or would using the % symbol be preferable? And should numbers up to ten be written out or just appear as figures?

For daily newspapers, style guides can run to hundreds of pages. For companies in other industries, just a page or two might suffice – often referred to as ‘word lists’ rather than full-blown style guides.

Getting started

The easiest way to start is to make a list of words and terms you currently have a style for, then add to it whenever a style decision comes up.

Once you’ve put a style guide together from scratch, you never need do so again. I wrote a style guide for an education magazine I worked on in the 90s and I’ve used it as the basis for every other style guide I’ve put together since. Over the years it has morphed into style guides for books published by the Commonwealth Secretariat, a magazine for railway managers, several international business publications and now my current focus is the KISS website.

In most organisations, style guides are fairly organic. It’s helpful to have them in a format that allows people to add to them each time they have to make a style decision about something. And it’s useful to be able to update it if the guidance in the style guide turns out to be awkward or impractical. If you use Google Drive, this can be a great place to put a style guide so that everyone who needs it can access it easily.

Tricks of the trade 

If words are your thing and you’re interested in mastering the conventions used by professional editors, The New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors is a great place to start. This is to be found on many editors’ desks and it’s not unusual for style guides to refer users to the New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors for terminology that they don’t cover.

You can also buy a copy of The Times’ style guide from bookshops, which is still seen as quite authoritative in newspaper circles.

Once you’ve perfected your style guide, make sure everyone who will be writing anything customer-facing knows about it – and uses it. That includes any external agencies that might be working with you on any PR and marketing.

It’s not unusual for organisations – even publishers – to have beautifully co-ordinated style consistency across most customer-facing content, only to have some pages on the website that completely break with this. This is usually because there is an individual in the organisation writing these pages who doesn’t know, or doesn’t care, about the style guide. Or because those pages pre-date the style guide and haven’t been reviewed recently.

Once you have an established style guide, any time old literature is reprinted – or digital literature about to be redistributed to customers – it should be brought into line with the agreed styles. And, when you have the stamina, the whole of your website(s) will need going through as well.

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