In the world of content, writing without adhering to elements of style is frowned upon, unrefined and maybe even a tad feral. And before you think, “I’m not a writer; this doesn’t apply to me,” I have some news – it applies to pretty much everyone.
You most likely utilize a style every day without even realizing it. Your coworkers probably rely on acronyms that you no longer have to define. Or maybe you have established rules around how you describe your business model. Or, maybe, you even have a list – and I hope it’s short – of the words that your boss just hates to see in reports. As these rules become widely adopted, they become your style. See? You didn’t even know you were already on the right track!
But let’s start at the beginning …
What is style?
A writing style is a framework of guidelines or agreed-upon rules that a group, organization, business or industry adheres to. Style includes things like tone, tense and word choice, along with grammar specifics, punctuation rules and content guidelines.
Why do we use style?
Forgive the pun, but we use style to keep us all on the same page. Essentially, style is just an extension of our language and grammar rules. Think about it… why do we all spell words the same way? So we can communicate effectively, right? Style has the same goal – the more writing standards we follow, the more effective our communications.
What are the types of style?
Many times, when we talk about style, people think of the four main writing styles:
- Expository: an explanation with detailed steps.
- Descriptive: sometimes poetic, flowery descriptions of scenes and/or characters.
- Persuasive: an argument for or against a topic.
- Narrative: a full story arc, start to finish, with characters and a plot.
While these styles are great for classifying types of writing, the styles we are referring to are a little different. We are talking about different sets of standards that govern the writing itself. There are several common styles in use, usually created by educational or journalistic institutions. Here are a few examples if you’d like to explore some of these further.
- AP: Writing style from the Associated Press. Used in journalism and by many marketing and content agencies (like BuzzTheory).
- MLA: Writing style from the Modern Language Association. Used in academic writing.
- APA: Writing style from the American Psychological Association. Used in academic writing, particularly in post-graduate studies.
- Chicago: Writing style from the University of Chicago Press. Used in journalistic writing.
- Turabian: A citation and reference style based on the Chicago style.
- Others: Here’s a link to a list of countless others!
Why is using style in writing important?
When I was in school for journalism, I was amazed at all of the rules we were being taught to follow in our writing. The AP Stylebook – which I follow as a writer and we adhere to here at BuzzTheory (with a few exceptions) – has more than 5,000 entries. That’s more than 5,000 additional rules on top of all the grammar, spelling and punctuation standards you learned in grade school.
So, why go through all that trouble? What’s the point of applying style guidelines to your writing? Here are four main reasons:
- Readability: Using a style enhances the readability of your writing and your text. AP Style was developed by the world’s oldest news service, the Associated Press, to standardize the way things were written in order to enhance ease of use. Things are capitalized, italicized and spaced in ways that make them easier to read.
- Consistency: Consistency in messaging is important – especially in business, and especially in marketing and sales. Style guidelines help us write things the same way every time … regardless of who is writing. Consistent messaging is important to enforcing brand identity, and when readers are distracted by errors – even as seemingly innocent as capitalizing your company’s name in varied ways – your brand’s light dims a little.
- Clarity: Style guidelines provide rules for the things you were unsure about before, therefore adding clarity to your writing. Many times, I will forget the AP Style rule about something and look it up in my handy stylebook. When you adhere to a style, you don’t have to memorize every rule, but it serves as a documented source of the correct way to do things for future reference. Additionally, style guidelines like AP’s promote clarity by removing extraneous words, bias, inappropriate details or even offensive language.
- Credibility: When your copy is error-free, clear and consistent, your credibility increases. No further explanation needed.
How do I establish a content style guide for myself or my business?
If you think having a style guide for your business will benefit you – and it will – it’s easy to create and use one. Chances are, you already have some sort of style guide, and you don’t even know it. Many businesses have shared rules that are applied to all writing or materials, but they just haven’t been documented yet.
How do I create a content style guide?
Creating a style guide is simple. Follow this quick process to get started.
- Designate a keeper/manager of the style guide. This is most likely your communications or marketing person, but it can also be someone in an administrative role or anyone willing to take the project on.
- Inform the staff. Tell your team what you’re doing and why, and ask them to let the style guide manager know of any rules they’re aware of. For example, someone might remember that your company prefers to use the term “Cloud PBX” instead of “Hosted PBX.” That belongs in your style guide. You might notice that you sometimes write your company name with Inc. on the end and other times you don’t – time to make a decision and add that to the style guide.
- Open a notes document. Your initial style guide draft will not be created in a day. The manager should collect these items over a predetermined length of time – like a few months – and then commit them all to a draft for review. Inevitably, the drafting process reminds people of other rules that should be in the style guide, and that’s a good thing.
- Turn your notes document into a draft style guide. Take your notes and assemble them into a draft document. Be sure to apply the rules to the new document as you go.
- Circulate your draft guide for comments and edits. Send your draft style guide document to a select number of people for review to make sure you didn’t overlook anything and to check for errors.
- Distribute your style guide. When your draft is completed, distribute it companywide (or at least to departments that need it, like marketing).
- Accept that the project will never end. Just go ahead and come to terms with the fact that your style guide will never be set in stone. The goal is to change it as your content changes, and as you continue to tighten up your messaging. Keep it updated so it will continue to be a useful tool for your business.
- Implement editing checks and balances. Once you have a style guide, create a plan for maintaining it with regular updates and edits. Additionally, have one or more people become hyper-familiar with the style guide and then serve as editors on your content. Distribute it widely and always have the most recent version saved somewhere obvious so anyone can easily use it.
Content Style Guide Examples
To illustrate what I’m describing, here are a few examples from BuzzTheory’s actual internal style guide.
- Capitalize the names of months in all uses.
- When a month is used with a specific date, abbreviate only Jan., Feb., Aug., Sept., Oct., Nov., Dec. Spell out when using alone or with a year alone. When listed with a year, there is no comma. Never use ordinal abbreviations for dates (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc.). Examples:
- January 2016 was a cold month.
- Jan. 2 was the coldest day of the month.
- It snowed on Jan. 2, 2016.
- Jan. 14, 2013, was the target release date.
- When a phrase refers to a month, day and year, set off the year with commas.
- Default to the company’s style on all uses, including whether to use the short form on second mentions.
- Company pronouns are it/its not them/their.
Further vs. Farther
- Farther refers to physical distance. Joe walked farther than Mary.
- Further refers to an extension of time or degree. She will look further into the mystery.
We also have an entire section of our style guide that is specific to the tech and telecom industry. Some examples:
as a service: Spell out “as a service” technologies on first mention with short form in parentheses in subsequent mentions. For example, Software as a Service (SaaS), Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), Unified Communications as a Service (UCaaS), etc. Short form is used on subsequent mentions.
cybersecurity (one word)
dark fiber: Fiber-optic network that is not yet “lit” or put into use by a service provider.
email (lowercase, no hyphen)
end user (noun is two words, adjective is hyphenated)
last mile (noun is two words, adjective is hyphenated)
lead-generation (always hyphenated, as an adjective or a noun. Short form of lead-gen is acceptable)
The Bottom Line
Your style guide doesn’t have to be 30 pages long like ours is at BuzzTheory. After all, content is our business. But even one page with a few standards will help improve the caliber of everyone’s writing and benefit your reputation and your business.
And, as you embark on this project, please remember this key indicator of success – if your style is working, your reader won’t even notice it’s there.
The point is to notice the content, NOT the style. So, while writers obsess about spacing and commas and the correct way to phrase something, the reader shouldn’t give it a second thought. You’ll know your style is making a difference when it’s difficult to notice it at all.