Style guides, explained

Other terms related to style guides: Writer’s style guide, style sheet, style manual, tone of voice, Associated Press (AP), Chicago Manual of Style (CMS), Modern Language Association (MLA), American Psychological Association (APA).

A style guide is a set of standards designed to help writers and other creatives compose, format, and design documents and other content meet the requirements of an organization's brand. Style guides are often mandatory, meaning that their instructions must be followed before a piece of content can be published.

Style guides come in many varieties and can include specifications on logos, visual identity, colors, word usage, typography, and more. From a writing, copy editing, and proofreading perspective, style guides will often dictate grammar, punctuation, spelling, formatting, and the like.  

How style guides are used by writers, publishers, and editors

Style guides are used by writers and publishers around the world to ensure consistency and clarity in documents since natural writing styles vary greatly from person to person. The way a writer formats dates, times, and headings will vary according to their preference, education, experience, and other factors, for example.

A style guide solves this problem by providing a specific set of standards so that everyone using that style guide creates consistent written work. For example, a specific guide may call for “Sentence case” in headings, to always write dates out in full, and to always use a serial, or Oxford, comma.

The importance of style guides

Style guides are vital across many areas including brands, businesses, publications, and other organizations. They promote consistency, strengthen brand identity, and make it easier for multiple workers to collaborate on a project.

Brand consistency

Style guides are essential for maintaining brand consistency. They allow multiple contributors to work on a project by ensuring everyone adheres to the same standards and guidelines. Businesses want to ensure everyone involved expresses the same message regarding their brand.

For example, if your company sells books it’s important that copywriters say “we sell books” instead of “we publish and sell the latest books.” In the second statement, the brand sounds like a publishing firm instead of a bookstore – a consumer reading both messages from the same brand will get confused, which can decrease trust in a business or brand.

Better marketing

Style guides create consistency in marketing so that positive branding is highlighted across all marketing channels. Copywriters working to a writing style guide can change the tone of a company’s content to match the desired brand image. They will know the type of language to use, correct formatting, word usage, tone and approach, the right keywords for SEO optimization, and more.

This particularly applies to advertising and promotional materials. Content creators and producers will understand the right audience to target, the channels used to share an ad, specific creative decisions, and other factors to maximize the effectiveness of branding in promotional materials.

Confidence in messaging

Customers love consistency. We subconsciously notice when something doesn’t “feel right,” and that can come from differences in style, wording, and other factors. Style guides ensure that messaging happens in the same way, each and every time. This helps to build up positive reinforcement and recognition.

Types of style guides

There are many types of style guides, depending on requirements. Organizations can create their own style guides, use existing guides, or combine the two.

Writing and prose style guides

There are many well-established style guides including: Associated Press (AP), Chicago Manual of Style (CMS), Modern Language Association (MLA), and American Psychological Association (APA). Each of them prescribes spelling, formatting, grammar, and other writing elements in slightly different ways. Most journals and newspapers have their own style guides.

Visual style guides

The content of visual style guides does vary depending on the organization. Visual style guides are essential when making logos, flyers, promotional graphics, and other visual design choices. They typically include instructions on fonts, color palettes, image use, typography, spacing, and more.

Editorial style guides

These are specific to the organization's approach and tone of voice. They may include instructions on slogans, tag lines, how to address readers, key messaging points, wording conventions, formalities, and more.

FAQs about style guides

We only have a small team, do we need a style guide?

While you’re a small team, working closely together, you probably don’t need a style guide. As you grow and take on more employees at your location or remotely, a style guide is often an excellent idea. It will get everyone up to speed quickly and ensure all employees are working to consistent style guidelines.

How can a style guide expert help me?

Style guide experts take away the hassle of forming your own or your company’s style guide by doing the work for you. They can analyze company behaviors and branding to start developing a style guide. They’ll collaborate with you, include your suggestions, and ensure it’s easy to follow your standards. Experts can also recommend published style guides that work with your overall messaging.

What are some examples of published style guides?

Here’s a list of popular style guides: ACS Style Guide, AMA Manual of Style, AP Stylebook, APA Style, The ASA Style Guide, The Business Style Handbook, The Cambridge Guide to English Usage, The Chicago Manual of Style, Citing Medicine, The Elements of Style, The Elements of Typographic Style, Fowler's Modern English Usage, IEEE style, ISO 690, MHRA Style Guide, The Microsoft Manual of Style, MLA Handbook, The New York Times Manual, The Oxford Guide to Style / New Hart's Rules, Scientific Style and Format (CSE style), The Sense of Style, Turabian: A Manual for Writers.

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