Style guides, why they’re worth it

Imagine you’re a web editor. You’re in the first week of your job, and you’ve been asked to update content for a series of product pages. To do this, you have to collect information from 18 different people across your company.

 Style guides, why they’re worth it

No direction

The guy in development has given you a thousand technical details you know your customers don’t care about. Another is your boss’ boss, who might know your business inside out but can’t structure a sentence. Then there’s someone you can never get hold of, so you end up with scraps of information dashed off in an email.

You’ve got too much on one end of the scale, not enough at the other and nothing but a badly spelled set of notes in the middle. You’re an editor, you know how to knock raw content into shape, but when it comes to naming conventions, capitalisations and hyphenations, you’re lost in a sea of inconsistency.

Make your own laws

If you’re working alone and very diligent, you can decide on a style and stick to it, but as an old boss of mine was fond of saying: ‘if it’s all in your head, what am I supposed to do when you get hit by a bus?’

This is where you need a good, comprehensive style guide – something to guide your writing, back you up and keep you consistent.

A good style guide isn’t a grammar tutorial. It’s an authority on how your brand writes. It’s for when there are no universal rules – like number and date styles, capitalisation rules, punctuation for bullet points and lists – your guide needs to dictate these. It should also have any special vocabulary or terminology specific to your company with instructions about how and when to use it.

What’s the point?

Inevitably, someone will be willing to pull out that eternal riposte: who actually cares? What does it matter if sometimes you capitalise something and other times don’t? Who will ever notice your date format?

Talk to anyone about usability – what’s the one word you’ll hear over and over and over? Consistency. Without your style guide, it’s virtually impossible to guarantee it. Inconsistency jars. It makes your content unprofessional and hard to follow. Every stray capital and misplaced hyphen chips away at your credibility.

We’ve been training people for more than 10 years and one of the examples we often use is a badly written piece of copy from a very well-known online travel company. As one of our trainees quite rightly said: “if they can’t even spell their site right, how am I supposed to believe they can get a plane up in the air?”

Your digital content is doing a job – most likely, it’s your sales rep – which is why consistency of language is as critical as accuracy. Are the people on your site ‘customers’, ‘users’, ‘members’, ‘friends’? Do you ask them to ‘buy’, ‘purchase’, ‘get’ or ‘try’? Internet users are task-focused and if your calls to action are confusing they’ll be gone.

Look after your guide

Once you’ve built your style guide, use it. Write practical instructions and enforce them. Once it’s in circulation, the style guide should trump anyone else. Make someone its champion – they will make sure the rules aren’t broken and the guide is kept up to date.

Your style guide is a living document and you need to keep it well-fed with new conventions, names, preferred and prohibited words whenever they come up. It’s a teacher, a mediator and a life raft. Respect it, update it – and don’t let anyone underestimate it.