How to make a style guide: The process and examples you need

How to make a style guide: The process and examples you need

5 minute read

How to make a style guide: The process and examples you need

5 minute read

How to make a style guide: The process and examples you need

Gigi Griffis

Content Strategist
Keeping everybody on the same page is hard work in any discipline—and it’s particularly difficult when it comes to content.

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You’re communicating high-level business goals, user profiles, calls to action, and page requirements. You’re training authors to write in a consistent and appropriate tone of voice.

On top of all this, there’s the not-so-little matter of making sure that spelling, grammar, and style flow perfectly from one page to the next—even when those pages were written by 10 different authors.

Yikes.

This is why we’re big advocates of having a well-thought-out style guide that’s easy for your authors to use. If you’re not clear on what a style guide is, let me back up for a moment.

What exactly is a content style guide?

There are design style guides, and there are content style guides. The former lays out things such as the hex codes for your color palette, your typography and typefaces, iconography, brand assets, and the overall look and feel of your brand.

Content or editorial style guides, on the other hand, are brand guidelines for spelling, grammar, structure, and style. Their purpose is to ensure that—whether you’re a team of one, have a department of 100 people, or outsource to freelancers—you stay consistent on all the nitty-gritty details of content creation.

Style guides are one of the key elements of ContentOps—the people, processes and infrastructure that allows organizations to plan, create and deliver content that meets audience needs and business goals.

The components of your style guide

What kind of things should a style guide contain?

Your style guide should clarify:

  • Spelling
  • Hyphenation
  • Capitalization
  • Word choice
  • Terminology
  • Sentence structure

It can also include:

  • Brand voice and tone guidelines, along with a brand personality description
  • The core focus of your messaging, based on your brand vision and mission statement
  • Image selection, sizing, and alt tag guidelines
  • SEO guidelines
  • Author formatting guidelines or templates

For example, the Basics section of Zendesk’s brand guide is dedicated to the company’s tagline, value prop, company description, and boilerplate. Not to mention that the guide also includes a section for copywriters, which further explains how the brand should “sound” across all channels.

Excerpt from Zendesk’s style guide
An overview of Zendesk’s messaging in the company’s design and content style guide

Now that you have an idea of what a style guide is for and what it includes, let’s dive into how to create one.

1. Choose a “head chef”

First, put someone in charge of your style guide.

Deciding for or against the Oxford comma won’t make or break your content or your content strategy. What’s important is that everyone sticks to whatever decision you make. This is why someone must have the power to make those tie-breaking, final, no-ifs-ands-or-buts decisions.

This person should be a competent content professional and a good listener—someone who cares about what the rest of the team has to say but who’s also comfortable making decisions even if others don’t agree.

Putting someone in charge doesn’t mean that the rest of the team won’t get to weigh in or that the head chef should make all content decisions by themselves. But it does mean that battles over which words to capitalize in your headlines should not and will not stretch into eternity.

2. Create your style guide (and use examples for clarity)

With a head chef selected, it’s time to start outlining your brand’s approach to grammar, spelling, punctuation, and so on. Whatever your style guide includes, it should be specific.

So, for example, if you’re going to describe your brand voice as opinionated like Mozilla does in the Firefox style guide, explain what you mean. Doing so will ensure that your brand personality comes off as you want it to—and that your audience perceives your brand the way you want them to.

Excerpt from Firefox’s style guide
How Firefox describes and illustrates its brand voice and tone

You can give stylistic examples with the help of a simple template like these two below:

Our brand is: Compassionate. This looks like: Speaking directly to the user by saying “you.” Identifying our individual authors in blog posts, using “I” and sharing personal stories to connect with our target audience.
Our brand is: Personable. This looks like: Using parentheses to offer asides that connect with the reader.

For example: “Writing another book is, quite frankly, a little terrifying. (But, hey, I keep telling everybody to face their fears, so I guess I should too, right?)”

Additionally, if you want to go the extra mile, you can give examples of what not to do, as illustrated in Kevan Gilbert’s tone of voice table examples.

Everything from your brand voice to your grammatical choices should have specific guidelines and examples. So, ultimately, your content style guide will end up looking something like this:

The Oxford Comma

‍In any list of three or more items, always use a comma before the and.

Correct: Content strategy, blogging, and A/B testing are key to our success.

Incorrect: Content strategy, blogging and A/B testing are key to our success.

Percentages

When using a percentage, write out the full word rather than using the symbol.

Correct: Sales are up 35 percent.

Incorrect: Sales are up 35%.

Numbers

For all numbers under 10, spell out the number. For all numbers 10 and over, use the numeral.

Correct: Respect is one of our values. There are 12 values.

Incorrect: Respect is 1 of our values. There are twelve values.

The more you explain and demonstrate, the less room you leave for inconsistency.

3. Get everyone to use the guide

Of course, to avoid inconsistency, the next hurdle you must overcome is getting everyone on your team to use the guide.

You see, authors work in a variety of different ways. Some love to flip through giant style guides, reading, searching, and memorizing. Some are focused on the task at hand and find the idea of browsing a style guide tedious and overwhelming. And still, others assume that their way is correct and won’t even think about consulting the guide.

So how do you get all of your team members on the same page?

First, you need to understand the many ways in which your style guide will be used. Only then can you plan to accommodate them, making use of one or both of the following proven approaches for unifying teams.

Build a style guide template into your authoring platform

Ah, technology to the rescue once again. Many authoring platforms (including GatherContent) allow you to integrate your guidelines into their systems.

In some cases, this works a lot like a spell check feature, highlighting words or grammar that don’t comply with your standards and allowing authors to accept or reject changes. And, in others, you can include style notes for your content and copywriters to consult directly on the page.

For example, with embedded style guidelines in GatherContent, you can:

  • Provide template guidelines that serve as an overall reference point for a content brief
  • Set field-guidelines to give more specific instructions (or reiterate the most important reminders)
  • And integrate with Grammarly for more advanced content governance
Example of embedded style guidelines in GatherContent
An example of embedded style guidelines in GatherContent

Having your style guide integrated into your system in this way is great for keeping it top-of-mind and in use throughout the content development process.

Make your brand style guide searchable

‍Instead of sending out PDFs or handing out printed copies of the stylebook, consider setting up a simple searchable, navigable website.  

This prevents people from ‘losing their copy’ (in more ways than one) and makes it easy to reference your guidelines in one tab while working on content in another.

Additionally, by placing your style guide on a web page, you can edit it as needed, and everyone will automatically have access to the most up-to-date version.

Brand style guide examples to inspire you

Need some additional inspiration for your style guide? Besides the examples we’ve already mentioned, including Zendesk and Firefox, you can also check out the style guides of:

You don't have to start from scratch. There are more than enough resources out there to help you create clear, comprehensive guidelines of your own.

Go forth and style

With this in mind, you should put someone in charge of making the final decisions, ensure that your guidelines are detailed and chock-full of examples, and use technology to keep them top-of-mind throughout the authoring process.

Good to Know: Speaking of technology, would you like to see how embedded style guidelines in GatherContent can improve both your content quality and workflow? Book a demo to learn how it works!

You’re communicating high-level business goals, user profiles, calls to action, and page requirements. You’re training authors to write in a consistent and appropriate tone of voice.

On top of all this, there’s the not-so-little matter of making sure that spelling, grammar, and style flow perfectly from one page to the next—even when those pages were written by 10 different authors.

Yikes.

This is why we’re big advocates of having a well-thought-out style guide that’s easy for your authors to use. If you’re not clear on what a style guide is, let me back up for a moment.

What exactly is a content style guide?

There are design style guides, and there are content style guides. The former lays out things such as the hex codes for your color palette, your typography and typefaces, iconography, brand assets, and the overall look and feel of your brand.

Content or editorial style guides, on the other hand, are brand guidelines for spelling, grammar, structure, and style. Their purpose is to ensure that—whether you’re a team of one, have a department of 100 people, or outsource to freelancers—you stay consistent on all the nitty-gritty details of content creation.

Style guides are one of the key elements of ContentOps—the people, processes and infrastructure that allows organizations to plan, create and deliver content that meets audience needs and business goals.

The components of your style guide

What kind of things should a style guide contain?

Your style guide should clarify:

  • Spelling
  • Hyphenation
  • Capitalization
  • Word choice
  • Terminology
  • Sentence structure

It can also include:

  • Brand voice and tone guidelines, along with a brand personality description
  • The core focus of your messaging, based on your brand vision and mission statement
  • Image selection, sizing, and alt tag guidelines
  • SEO guidelines
  • Author formatting guidelines or templates

For example, the Basics section of Zendesk’s brand guide is dedicated to the company’s tagline, value prop, company description, and boilerplate. Not to mention that the guide also includes a section for copywriters, which further explains how the brand should “sound” across all channels.

Excerpt from Zendesk’s style guide
An overview of Zendesk’s messaging in the company’s design and content style guide

Now that you have an idea of what a style guide is for and what it includes, let’s dive into how to create one.

1. Choose a “head chef”

First, put someone in charge of your style guide.

Deciding for or against the Oxford comma won’t make or break your content or your content strategy. What’s important is that everyone sticks to whatever decision you make. This is why someone must have the power to make those tie-breaking, final, no-ifs-ands-or-buts decisions.

This person should be a competent content professional and a good listener—someone who cares about what the rest of the team has to say but who’s also comfortable making decisions even if others don’t agree.

Putting someone in charge doesn’t mean that the rest of the team won’t get to weigh in or that the head chef should make all content decisions by themselves. But it does mean that battles over which words to capitalize in your headlines should not and will not stretch into eternity.

2. Create your style guide (and use examples for clarity)

With a head chef selected, it’s time to start outlining your brand’s approach to grammar, spelling, punctuation, and so on. Whatever your style guide includes, it should be specific.

So, for example, if you’re going to describe your brand voice as opinionated like Mozilla does in the Firefox style guide, explain what you mean. Doing so will ensure that your brand personality comes off as you want it to—and that your audience perceives your brand the way you want them to.

Excerpt from Firefox’s style guide
How Firefox describes and illustrates its brand voice and tone

You can give stylistic examples with the help of a simple template like these two below:

Our brand is: Compassionate. This looks like: Speaking directly to the user by saying “you.” Identifying our individual authors in blog posts, using “I” and sharing personal stories to connect with our target audience.
Our brand is: Personable. This looks like: Using parentheses to offer asides that connect with the reader.

For example: “Writing another book is, quite frankly, a little terrifying. (But, hey, I keep telling everybody to face their fears, so I guess I should too, right?)”

Additionally, if you want to go the extra mile, you can give examples of what not to do, as illustrated in Kevan Gilbert’s tone of voice table examples.

Everything from your brand voice to your grammatical choices should have specific guidelines and examples. So, ultimately, your content style guide will end up looking something like this:

The Oxford Comma

‍In any list of three or more items, always use a comma before the and.

Correct: Content strategy, blogging, and A/B testing are key to our success.

Incorrect: Content strategy, blogging and A/B testing are key to our success.

Percentages

When using a percentage, write out the full word rather than using the symbol.

Correct: Sales are up 35 percent.

Incorrect: Sales are up 35%.

Numbers

For all numbers under 10, spell out the number. For all numbers 10 and over, use the numeral.

Correct: Respect is one of our values. There are 12 values.

Incorrect: Respect is 1 of our values. There are twelve values.

The more you explain and demonstrate, the less room you leave for inconsistency.

3. Get everyone to use the guide

Of course, to avoid inconsistency, the next hurdle you must overcome is getting everyone on your team to use the guide.

You see, authors work in a variety of different ways. Some love to flip through giant style guides, reading, searching, and memorizing. Some are focused on the task at hand and find the idea of browsing a style guide tedious and overwhelming. And still, others assume that their way is correct and won’t even think about consulting the guide.

So how do you get all of your team members on the same page?

First, you need to understand the many ways in which your style guide will be used. Only then can you plan to accommodate them, making use of one or both of the following proven approaches for unifying teams.

Build a style guide template into your authoring platform

Ah, technology to the rescue once again. Many authoring platforms (including GatherContent) allow you to integrate your guidelines into their systems.

In some cases, this works a lot like a spell check feature, highlighting words or grammar that don’t comply with your standards and allowing authors to accept or reject changes. And, in others, you can include style notes for your content and copywriters to consult directly on the page.

For example, with embedded style guidelines in GatherContent, you can:

  • Provide template guidelines that serve as an overall reference point for a content brief
  • Set field-guidelines to give more specific instructions (or reiterate the most important reminders)
  • And integrate with Grammarly for more advanced content governance
Example of embedded style guidelines in GatherContent
An example of embedded style guidelines in GatherContent

Having your style guide integrated into your system in this way is great for keeping it top-of-mind and in use throughout the content development process.

Make your brand style guide searchable

‍Instead of sending out PDFs or handing out printed copies of the stylebook, consider setting up a simple searchable, navigable website.  

This prevents people from ‘losing their copy’ (in more ways than one) and makes it easy to reference your guidelines in one tab while working on content in another.

Additionally, by placing your style guide on a web page, you can edit it as needed, and everyone will automatically have access to the most up-to-date version.

Brand style guide examples to inspire you

Need some additional inspiration for your style guide? Besides the examples we’ve already mentioned, including Zendesk and Firefox, you can also check out the style guides of:

You don't have to start from scratch. There are more than enough resources out there to help you create clear, comprehensive guidelines of your own.

Go forth and style

With this in mind, you should put someone in charge of making the final decisions, ensure that your guidelines are detailed and chock-full of examples, and use technology to keep them top-of-mind throughout the authoring process.

Good to Know: Speaking of technology, would you like to see how embedded style guidelines in GatherContent can improve both your content quality and workflow? Book a demo to learn how it works!

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gigi griffis

About the author

Gigi Griffis

Gigi is a content strategist and web writer specializing in travel, technology, education, non-profit, and wellness content. In 2010, she quit her agency job and started Content for Do-Gooders, where she helps clients solve messy content problems around the world. You should follow her on Twitter.

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