Adding substance to your style guide

Most companies have a style guide tucked away somewhere, often based on that venerable document, The Economist style guide. These set of rules on spelling, punctuation and grammar are an essential editorial tool. But are these style guides really doing their job when it comes to online publishing, particularly for commercial organisations?

 Adding substance to your style guide

At Sticky, we come across a lot of style guides that are obviously based on editorial rules for newspapers or general interest magazines. Of course, these publications cover everything, so if you’re working for one you need to know how to write the names of rivers or what style to use when referring to the Pope. (Or should that be pope?) But if you’re writing product descriptions for a website, this type of information isn’t much use and can be confusing to wade through.

So what does an online style guide for a commercial organisation need to cover? Well, clear instructions on style for product names, or even agreement on what these are, is always nice. Equally useful are rules for writing online content elements like bullet points and sub-headings.

It’s also important to address how to write title tags and meta descriptions, link and anchor text, and of course, the subtle art of working in keywords without hampering the flow of the copy or the value of the information for the reader.

A good style guide acknowledges the difference between print audiences (who are comparatively time-rich) and the typical web-user, who has numerous distractions, definite goals and a very short attention span. When you write for online, your copy answers to a whole different set of needs – and it has to be written in a whole new way.

Of course, some traditional style guide entries – how to use apostrophes , for example – are essential, and they apply just as much online as they do in print. But a good style guide also needs to take into account differences in on and offline writing. For example, most style guides for print advocate writing the numbers 1 to 9 or 1 to 10 in words, but there’s evidence that for online, writing all numbers as numerals is more suitable.

Many organisations are now realising that their style guides aren’t suitable for the job when it comes to digital copy, so they ask us to update them, or create new ones from scratch. Maybe it’s time to unearth your style guide, take a good look at it and see if it needs a makeover.