What the heck is a writing style guide? (And why do I need one?)

I’ve fielded several questions from clients recently about writing style decisions – when to capitalize job titles, the number of spaces after a period, when to use numerals vs. spelling out numbers, whether to use an Oxford comma, things like that.

Questions like these are especially common when a piece of writing goes through numerous individuals during the approval process. When it comes to writing, everyone has an opinion on what’s right and what’s wrong.

In many cases, the comments shared aren’t necessarily wrong – they are just different viewpoints based on the individual’s education and experience. This is because there are many different writing styles – Chicago Manual of Style for general publishing, AP Stylebook for journalism, and APA Style for social sciences, to name a few.

The problem arises when a company or organization has not adopted a writing style guide.

So … what’s a writing style guide?

A style guide is a set of standards a company or organization adopts for their written communications. In other words, a style guide lays down the rules of the road for everyone involved in written communications for your company. Capitalization, punctuation, tense, spelling and word choice are some of the common areas a writing style guide can address.

And why do I need a writing style guide?

The lack of a writing style guide can easily open the door to a never-ending, circular debate about commas, capitalization and so forth. It can cause confusion and frustration for your writing contributors. And, ultimately, it results in inconsistencies in your communications materials.

Inconsistencies are likely the worst consequence, as readers will see these as mistakes or just plain sloppiness. This can be very damaging to your company’s reputation, as well as to the brand image you are working to build.

The good news is that it can be avoided. And perhaps more significant than avoiding unwanted consequences, your writing style guide can help build and support the brand image you want to portray.

Get started on your writing style guide with these five simple steps:

  • Step 1. The first step is to adopt an overall writing style. With my journalism background, AP Style has been my go-to resource. (And it’s easier than ever to double check myself or get questions answered with their online style guide!)Your chosen style guide will be the foundation of your writing. It does not mean that you are 100 percent tied to this style, or that you have no flexibility. But when a question arises, this is the guide you will refer to.
  • Step 2. The second step is to develop an organization-specific writing style guide. This guide will include common style questions that come up within your company. It will also include any organization-specific deviations from your primary style guide, or provide rules for any writing needs not addressed in your primary style guide.There are online resources and templates that can help you develop a style guide for your organization. A professional copywriter or marketing consultant can also help you create and consistently utilize your style guide.
  • Step 3. The third step is to introduce your primary and company-specific style guide to your organization as a whole, as well as to your writing contributors. To get buy-in, it will likely be important to share some background on why a style guide is important and the process you went through to develop it.
  • Step 4. The fourth step is to use your style guide consistently. Make the guides easily accessible to everyone who will be writing for your organization.It is also extremely helpful to have a final set of eyes – a person tasked with doing a final review of the articles, with an emphasis on ensuring all the pieces use a consistent writing style. Many clients find it helpful to have an outside person – a copywriter or other consultant – complete this final review.
  • Step 5. Combine your style guide with your company’s fresh, relevant, easy-to-read content and you are well on your way to building deeper relationships with your existing audience and developing valuable new leads to grow your business!

Rachel Grenier has been happily having conversations with clients about capitalization, commas and content as an independent copywriter and marketing consultant for 11+ years.


Rachel Grenier

Rachel helps clients “find their words” as an independent copywriter and marketing consultant. She, her husband and son are living their dream of working and residing between Alaska and Hawaii.

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