Long relegated to the closets of out-of-work reporters and copy editors, style guides now deserve a spot in the library — or browser bookmarks — of every website content manager.
The right style guide can be an invaluable tool for more efficiently creating content that is polished, with a consistent “look and feel” and in line with your company’s voice. These factors play a big role in effectively developing content marketing that makes a positive first impression and establishes authority and trust with your target customers.
What are style guides?
Style guides are common in publishing — including newspapers, magazine, trade and academic book publishing. Since content marketing is essentially a form of publishing sponsored by your brand, you will benefit from having a style guide of your own.
Essentially, style guides are reference tools that list rules for written and visual communications. As we are a content marketing agency that specializes in producing written material, we’ll concentrate here on style guides for writers and editors vs. kinds of style guides that may be used to document design elements such as a color palette or typefaces.
Some well-established style guides are widely used, which we’ll look at below, and many businesses create their own in-house style guide to supplement that, sometimes called a style sheet, and documenting what is often called “house style.” For example, if you look through this site, you’ll see that our house style is to leave out the hyphen when writing about nonprofit marketing.
Style guides cover basic issues for which there is usually only one right answer — such as capitalizing months but not seasons, the difference between your and you’re, the often-complex pluralization of possessive nouns and ways to handle tricky constructions. But a style guide isn’t really intended to be a grammar text. After all, there’s a reason they are called guide books rather than rule books.
Instead, the main purpose of a style guide is to address quirks of written English for which there aren’t firm rules and which are therefore easy to be inconsistent with. These are often issues that are reasonably handled differently in different contexts.
For example, an academic journal in economics may handle numbers and percent signs differently than how the commercial book publisher William Morrow handles the same point in the book Freakonomics; and that may be different than how Time magazine would handle an excerpt of that same book.
Some of the issues that need to codified are so common that they are almost the first thing things copyeditors ask about when starting with a new client or company. For example:
- Will you use the Oxford comma?
- How and when will you capitalize job titles?
- After the first mention of a person, will you refer to them by first or last name?
The answer to any of those latter questions is up to you — they make up your house style — but once you make a decision you want to stick with it across your website; the style guide immortalizes your decisions and maintains consistency in the work of your writers, your editors and even you.
Some issues documented in a style guide come up rarely and look unimportant from the outside. For example, did you know the AP stylebook announced recently that the term “Garbanzo bean” should always be replaced with “chickpea”? That may seem irrelevant, but I guarantee that your business has some jargon or technical specification that insiders in your field have strong feelings about. If you work in higher ed marketing, people are going to notice if you use bachelors, bachelor’s, bachelors’ or a capitalized version of one of those.
Style guides can evolve. Often a new factor — either a new industry development or a new trend in language or even a new client whose content uses terminology not previously used — can require additional rules or amendments to existing ones.
For example, it’s very common for new technical terms to lose their hyphens and capital letters over time as their usage becomes more familiar. Remember e-mail? Or the Internet? Right now, we are getting familiar with terms like AR, VR, AI, SaaS and IoT, all of which are unlikely to be styled the same way ten years from now.
Or consider how Uber is becoming a verb the way Google has and the new style questions that will raise. Is it uberification or uberization? Hopefully, neither. That is one of those places where style guides should simply say “rewrite to avoid.”
Of course, you shouldn’t take any established style guide as gospel. Really, you should identify the one that comes closest to your context and industry conventions and make that the default. Then, from there, start developing your own house style sheet by noting departures from that default and documenting the situations that come up uniquely for your company.
For example, one of the clients for our content marketing agency is in an industry where they write often about frontline employees. Or is it front-line? Or front line? After editing about the tenth blog post where this came up, we said, “We better pause for a second, make a call on this and make sure we’re being consistent.” If nothing else, it will save us time discussing it in the future. (We went with frontline, and that’s now documented in our house style sheet for that client.)
To see an example of a short house style sheet that covers only the few items that are unique to one site, check out the Mozilla style guide. Most of it is concerned with the visual identity for their sites, but they have one short description of the optimal tone for written material and another short glossary to cover written style.
To settle these questions, many website content managers have more than one style guide at their fingertips, so let’s review some of the major guides that may work best for you as a website content manager. We’ll limit ourselves to examples that are on the web, so that rules out the The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, The Wall Street Journal Guide to Business Style and Usage and The Gregg Reference Manual (an old favorite for business writing). You’ll have to get those from your favorite book retailer.
And, as you’re reading through these, if you know of any we missed, please let us know on Twitter or in the comments below.
How does a website content manager choose a style guide?
As I mentioned before, each style guide has its own quirks — and with content marketing evolving rapidly, expect such quirks to multiply.
Despite this, you should be able as a content manager to get a feel for each style guide’s tone — and how it might or might not work with your own content. Ask yourself: what sort of voice am I going for with my website? Conversational, or more like a college lecture or textbook? Is my target audience likely to be comfortable with technical language and jargon, or are they expecting something more accessible?
For example, take a look at the Wikipedia and Buzzfeed examples below, both of which are newer style guides and born in the web era. But, oh, so different, right? Which voice is closer to your content?
Another way to think about this is in terms of types of publication. When you think of your brand publishing, do you see yourself as most like a daily newspaper, like a commercial magazine or like an academic publisher? You’re not identical to any of them, of course. Web writing is different. But if you can start from that basis, you’ll have a big portion of your style decisions already made by generations of editors before you.
What are some of the style guides out there?
Remember, style guides have their own fans, but you need to know what sort of style guide works best for your business or organization.
Associated Press (AP) Style Guide: This is most common in newspaper newsrooms, so with more and more journalists going into content marketing and becoming website managers, you should at least be aware of it. When do you spell it underway vs. underweigh? How about ensure and insure? Is it toward or towards? You know you have a refugee from a newsroom on your hands if they know the answer to these.
The AP style guide has extensive entries covering everything from correct use of grammar to terms you should use for some common everyday terms and expressions. This makes it good for establishing a conversational tone that makes for easy reading among all types of consumers of your content.
The Chicago Manual of Style: This one, with the familiar bright orange cover, is a doorstop. It digs in much deeper than the AP guide, with in-depth explanations of grammar, usage and mechanics of writing. Chicago is a common reference tool for both academic and commercial book publishing and many entries encourage you to adjust the advice based on whether you have a specialized or general readership.
The BBC News Styleguide: Don’t dismiss this style guide simply because it is concerned with British English: it’s a good, concise style guide with sections on all the basic parts of speech arranged alphabetically. It’s available online and, if nothing else, you should read the section on “Americanisms” just to get a sense of how English users outside the United States view our use of the language!
National Geographic Style Manual: This isn’t usually thought of as the industry standard, but it has the virtue of being online, free and the product of many years of thinking by the best editors around, so it makes a great starting point for your in-house style guide. As you probably know, the hallmark of National Geographic is very readable, engaging and authoritative writing, no matter how technical the subject, so it’s a good model for B2B content marketing to aspire to.
The Economist: The style guide of this weekly news magazine has the same virtues as National Geographic’s, but more British English.
The Elements of Style: Also available for free online, this guide originated as a slim volume beloved by many for its offbeat approach to the rules of writing, many of which (“Omit needless words!”) are useful for website content managers. It also wins points for its clear, simple explanations of the basics of English prose.
Wikipedia Manual of Style: With an enormous number of pages and contributors, Wikipedia naturally needs a style guide and naturally will end up influencing a lot of web style externally. When in doubt about how to use a comma in a date, this is a safe place to start. And it has the virtue of being a publication that is web-native so probably well aligned with the needs of readers on the web.
BuzzFeed Style Guide: Also with an enormous number of pages and contributors, though with a somewhat different voice, BuzzFeed has also developed and shared a resource that they hope you’ll follow. In fact, this style guide has its own Twitter feed.
Online Writing Lab: Recent college grads will be familiar with OWL, a resource started about 15 years ago by Purdue University writing instructors. This is your go-to if you are writing something that must be in MLA or APA style. But remember that those are conventions for academic writing and might not be appropriate for your content marketing. On the other hand, don’t rule it out entirely. Because some of our clients are in education technology and selling into higher ed, we do consult this occasionally.
MailChimp Content Style Guide: Some emerging technology companies are naturally interested in promoting good written work among their users and so are developing style guides that they share publicly. The email marketing service MailChimp is one example.
Envato Tuts+ Style Guide: The digital assets marketplace is another example in that category.
University communications style guides
Lastly, many universities have established style guides for their external communications and, since they come from people who give a lot of thought to writing and communication on complex subjects and are also tailored to a web context, they can be useful to building a style guide for B2B content marketing. Here are a few we’ve referred to when we are trying to resolve a style question:
- California State University, Chico
- Case Western Reserve University
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology
- University of Colorado
- University of Houston
- University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
- University of Massachusetts Boston
- University of Nebraska-Lincoln
- University of Nebraska Omaha
- University of Pittsburgh
- University of Richmond
- University of the South
- University of Texas
- Western Michigan University
One last pro tip for content editors
We’ll wind up with one last tip for quickly researching a question of style — use the News section of Google.
The News section, as you may know, limits search to newspapers and other news publications. So what you are seeing there reflects the actual daily usage of your fellow editors. If you search a term there, the most common way of styling it is a good bet. To take the example above of frontline employees, if you search on Google News for that term, you’ll see that it has been styled all three ways recently by reputable publications but you’ll also see a definite trend.
We’ve undoubtedly missed some useful style guides, so please be in touch and let us know if there any others that web content editors should know about and we’ll be sure to include them in a future update.
Michael Ream is a writer and editor who has contributed to numerous publications,including Forbes, Saveur and Midwest Traveler. A former newspaper reporter, he earned a degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.