What is a copywriting style guide?
Also known as a corporate writing style guide or online publishing style guide, a style guide is a set of rules that governs the consistent use of language and how you present content.
It covers the language you prefer to use and how to format it.
Style guides aren’t about setting or changing grammar rules. Instead, they’re about removing ambiguity and keeping a record of style decisions you make during a project so you can reference that decision in the future or for other content you’re working on.
It covers things like whether you’ll use sentence or title case for headings:
Slaying zombies at close range
Slaying Zombies at Close Range
Will you use full stop after the last point in a bullet list? Will start each bullet list item with an uppercase or lowercase letter?
Will you use contractions like can’t and won’t, or will you use cannot and will not?
Will you use digits like 1-9 or spell out one to nine?
For a call to action (CTA) will you use the word ‘call’ or ‘telephone’ when referencing phone numbers? For example:
Call Zombie Hunters: 1800 ZOMBIE
Telephone Zombie Hunters on 1800 966 849
None of these options are right or wrong. Each is a preference.
So long as you apply these style decisions consistently to your content, you’re right. You’ll also deliver your readers a better user experience.
Why you need a copywriting style guide
Focus on the user
Set up well, a good copywriting style guide will bring the focus back to the user, which is always a good thing. It keeps the user at the centre of copywriting and editorial decisions.
A style guide might set out who the target audience is and note language preferences to communicate well to that audience. It might set out the website’s readability targets, although smart content will always follow plain English principles.
Deliver consistent copy
A style guide helps you deliver a consistent style across all pages in a website. Consistent copy helps present a professional image, which can also build trust and credibility.
This is especially important when a team of people are working on the content. Without direction, copywriters and editors will make style decisions based on their own preferences. Each page will look different to the last. People will format their content in different ways.
Keep track of style decisions
As you write your way into a project, you make a lot of style decisions and a style guide is the best way to record them.
When you’re working in a team of writers and editors, the style guide needs to be a shared resource. Using a shared Google Doc or Wiki are ways to share the style guide among team members. It also becomes a single source of truth and the version that you continually update and refer to.
Examples of copywriting style guides
There’s no need to create your own style guide. Other organisations have done it for you.
Digital Transformation Agency Content Guide
Because I’m based in Australia and more than half of my work is for government clients writing plain English content, I follow the Australian Government’s Digital Transformation Agency’s Content Guide.
It covers best practice writing style rules and also sets out rules around accessibility and inclusivity.
The DTA recently published the first digital version of the Australian Government Style Manual, the manual’s first update since 2001.
It’s currently available to all in beta mode, but mystifyingly and disappointingly, they plan to lock the final version down to users with a .gov.au email address. They also plan to decommission the Content Guide when that happens.
This will cause headaches for a lot of freelance copywriters like me who specialise in writing for government and need to access the style guide to ensure our copy meets their standards. I remain optimistic that they will continue to give everyone access.
The Diversity Style Guide
The Diversity Style Guide helps us write in a more inclusive way.
This style guide covers terms related to
- race or ethnicity
- immigration, sexuality and gender identity
- drugs and alcohol
It not only explains terms, it suggests when to avoid the term or use it with caution.
MailChimp’s Content Style Guide
Copywriters often reference Mailchimp’s style guide as an example of a well-written copywriting style guide.
It’s clear, very easy to understand, and has a handy left-hand navigation panel or search function to help you find the style decision you need.
MailChimp encourages everyone to use their style guide under a Creative Commons licence, so long as you attribute it. Fair enough.
It might suit your own writing work or paid client projects.
Quickbooks Style Guide
I discovered this Intuit Quickbooks Style Guide when I met one of its authors, Michael Haggerty-Villa, at a content strategy conference. His talk was on transforming content with style guides.
I like how they include examples of what to do and what not to do. It makes their style guide suggestions so clear and reduces ambiguity.
It’s a good idea to include these ‘Do’ and ‘Don’t’ examples in a style guide.
Shopify Content Style Guide
Shopify provides an online writing style guide to help external developers and their teams meet Shopify’s content standards.
I like their ‘Voice and tone’ section. Like Quickbooks, they provide simple examples of what to do and what not to do.
What does a style guide include?
If you’re putting together a style guide for your client or for your organisation or even yourself, here’s the bare minimum I’d include:
- tone of voice
- bullet lists
- formatting of time and dates
- preferred spelling and word usage
Academic style manuals
If you’re working in an education setting, then the Chicago Manual of Style or the APA Style Manual is sure to come up as the style standard you’ll be asked to follow.
Chicago Manual of Style
Writers and editors often reference the Chicago Manual of Style as the gold standard of academic style manuals. Their referencing style is used in many university settings around the world, including Australia.
This style guide also includes punctuation, grammar, preferred spellings, numbers and much more, which non-academic writers also find handy.
APA Style Manual
The APA Style Manual is another popular choice for students and academics. It also has wider applications beyond academic settings.
News sites style guides
News sites usually provide online style guides for their journalists and anyone else who writes for them.
The ABC Style Guide
It has sections for reporting on business, religion, the military and legal terms, which is handy.
The Guardian Style Guide
The Guardian’s style guide is not a good style guide. They don’t categorise elements. Instead, it offers a mixed A-Z list of terms and their meanings, punctuation, numbers, etc.
You need to know which specific term you’re looking for. It might be hard to find the style answer you need.
Do you need a style guide?
The not-so-definitive answer? Probably.
If you collaborate on content with a team of writers and editors, then yes, you absolutely need one. It will create that single source of truth that all team members can refer to so they can keep content consistent.
If you want to keep track of your own style decisions to ensure the content you create is consistent, then yes, a style guide will be invaluable.
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