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How to create a writing style guide for your brand

Posted by Dan Hatch on 22nd August , 2023 in Copywriting, Editing & Proofreading
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A friend who works in the fashion industry once told me his boss wore the exact same outfit to work each day—a pair of blue jeans and a black turtleneck jumper. Just like Steve Jobs.

“Doesn’t he get bored wearing the same thing every day?” I asked.

“It’s his uniform,” my friend said. “His style is in his consistency. It’s actually very freeing.”

That made sense to me. Writing is a long way from fashion but I could easily relate to the deep comfort that comes from a consistency of style. After all, I’ve been operating within the boundaries of style guides for nearly 25 years. Knowing what to capitalise, what to italicise, whether to put a full stop on a bullet point… becoming familiar with the rules of a well-written style guide just makes your life as a writer much easier.

Every brand needs a style guide

Does your business have a style guide? Whether you’re Apple or a local greengrocer, your company should have a written set of rules for how you communicate with your customers and suppliers. A style guide is a single reference point everyone in your organisation can refer to, to ensure all writing has a consistent style, voice and tone—no matter who crafted the copy.

It should contain advice on preferred spelling, grammar and punctation, alongside examples of the correct tone and language to use to hit the brand voice. It might also provide advice on formatting, fonts and other practical elements of design.

Creating a style guide

If you don’t already have a style guide, the good news is you don’t have to start with a blank sheet of paper. Lots of really detailed style guides already exist, including the Chicago Manual of Style and the Associated Press Stylebook. There are plenty of others. The Australian Government has a Style Manual, for example. You can use one of these guides as a starting point, and then provide a tailored addendum for your brand, which explains things like when to capitalise a product name and use trademarks and so on.

Our proofreader, Wendy Wood, recommends picking a preferred dictionary, too.

“Dictionaries are buggers and don’t always agree, so if you’re using any old dictionary and a different any old dictionary each time, there are going to be inconsistencies,” she said.

What to include in your company style guide

Here are some of the other elements Wendy recommends you include in your style guide:

  • The most common, important and relevant topics from your preferred style guide (e.g., whether to use an Oxford comma, whether to capitalise bullet points)
  • Any exceptions to the rules in your preferred style guide
  • An alphabetical list of unique words, abbreviations, acronyms and misused terms (e.g., assure vs ensure vs insure)
  • Font size, colour, style, etc.
  • Notes on tone of voice, including examples of words and phrasing to use and to avoid.

Style guides tend to grow and evolve

While consistency is key, it’s always smart to keep updating and evolving your style guide with circumstances. I remember the day the daily newspaper I worked at finally had to catch up with the rest of the world and use Mumbai instead of Bombay to refer to the city in India, after the bombings of 2008. An email went around informing all the editorial staff of the change. There are more anodyne examples, too. Like ANZAC becoming Anzac in popular use.

But, as a general rule, the secret to good style is consistency.

That’s why I asked my friend who works in fashion to help me come up with my own “uniform”, like his boss, and like Steve Jobs. Now I own two dozen of the exact same long-sleeved Henley shirt and half a dozen pairs of the exact same chino trousers. I like to mix up the colours depending on the day, but beyond that, my friend was right—there’s great comfort and freedom in knowing your style.

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