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Content Strategy: 10 Essential Elements of Style Guides


Content strategists love to wax poetic about style guides, mysterious and legendary, but the truth is they have been a communications tool way before our emerging discipline. What makes them like the Loch Ness Monster is that they lack consistent use. Since someone, once upon a time, did write the style guide to create consistency within an organization’s written content, its lack of use is a conundrum.

Style guides are a critical part of content governance.  Governance across the Web is so vital because we want our users to have a consistent experience throughout our digital properties.

If you want or have a style guide, this blog post is for you, as I’ll describe 10 essential elements of any great style guide. If you already have one, blow off the dust from its lonely covers, crack it open and look for these elements. Feel free to add them.  Style guides should be living documents, as you’ll see from our list.

Ready?  I promise, no Loch Ness monster in sight.

The 10 Essential Elements of Successful Style Guides
1.  Centralized and Distributed
Distribute your style guide to the writing and posting workforce within your organization. If they are not professionally trained writers, then spend time explaining how to use the style guide, why it is important and how to access it (shared drives, Google docs, printed once a year, etc.)  Systems create freedom. Most people enjoy having rules to direct them when they are unsure.

2. Grammar Rules
Most corporate style guides use very short paragraphs to direct writers to other style guides for grammar rules, etc.  There are very basic grammar rules that people ALWAYS get wrong–even trained professional writers. So include three to four pages on some basics.  These might include the differences between the commonly misused words affect/effect, who/whom, bad/badly, complementary/complimentary, etc.

3. Punctuation Section
Punctuation can be a matter of style. For example, different organizations use the labeling of dates in various fashions, especially internationally. Make sure to explain the Oxford comma, how to use quotes, and my favorite (not!) the use of the Em Dash and En Dash.

4. Branding Guidelines
While you may think that branding guidelines (design, use of logo, etc.) belong in a separate document (and you may be right), I would argue both written and design style elements should be bundled. As we move toward an increasingly versatile workforce, where digital practitioners will be required to know how to write and code, branding guidelines within a traditional written style guide will gain importance.

5. Voice and Tone
So important. So overlooked. Knowing how to write a redirect page vs. a sign in page are two very different talents. Style guides can help with this, most critically by saying, “This is how we say it” and “This is NOT how we say it.”  I recently wrote a style guide where I explained to never compare the organization to a competitor. Instead, I explained how to elucidate the positioning as to “attack” the competitor without being forceful or inelegant. Sometimes, what NOT to say is just as important as what TO say.

6. Channel Distribution Guidance
How do you personify your brand’s voice and tone in 140 characters? Well, it had better be in your style guide. How many social media properties are you managing currently? Five? Six? 11? However many there are, make sure your style guide gives distinct instructions for each one. For example, your brand may allow you to say something like “Will we C U there?” Your brand may not. Note it in the style guide.

7. Mobile Section
I think mobile is different from channels because mobile makes content look different. Social media channels simply broadcast on different frequencies, if you would. Depending on what you’re selling and how you’re selling it, have a section in your style guide that addresses your mobile properties and their distinct styles.

8. Titles, Naming Conventions, Degrees
These are all important elements of a style guide most often ignored. Since I write so much in the healthcare space, I cannot tell you how many times within the SAME bio I have encountered MD and B.A.  Well which designation are you using, pray do tell?  What about when a link to a page on the website says “The Program for Highly Functional Children” and the page title says “Your Gifted Child”?  Depending on how large your organization is, you may want to create a cheat sheet for naming conventions, because they are most often the mistake on the page.

9. Last Published
This is so important, it should be number one, but then there were eight other things that I felt were more important. Update and distribute the style guide once a year. Make sure the last published date is ON THE COVER and every other page too.  That tells people they are working with the most current version.

10. User personas and Customer Segmentation
I left this one until the end because I feel the others MUST happen and these can wait. So many organizations have customer segmentation information, but they don’t bring those customers to life. Give them names, occupations, salaries, families, vacation spots and hobbies. Connecting to an actual persona, rather than data on a page helps writers and publishers to understand whom they are talking to in a digital conversation. Knowing whom you are conversing with makes for better dialogue, no?

So, what do you think? Did I leave anything out? How else can we improve the management and distribution of style guides?

About Ahava Leibtag

Ahava Leibtag, MA

Ahava R. Leibtag has more than 15 years of experience in writing, messaging and marketing. She is a well-recognized content expert and writes thought leadership about content strategy and content marketing. Ahava is the President and owner of Aha Media Group, a content strategy and content marketing consultancy founded in October 2005. She... More >