Creating a web copy style guide

Tuesday, April 22, 2014 by Richard Howe

Consistency and coordination are central to effective brand communication, but when you have a large website with several people involved in writing copy, it can be difficult to maintain a single voice across pages. And when you need to coordinate this with printed, email and social communications too, things become even trickier. Enter the style guide.

What is a style guide?

Otherwise known as a ‘style sheet’ or a ‘tone of voice guide’, a web copy style guide often forms part of a larger copywriting style guide for companies who are producing a range of print-based and web-based communications. 

Depending on the size of the company, it could be as brief as a single-page sheet or as detailed as a full book, but its purpose is always the same.

Put simply, the aim of the document is to ensure that all writers and management are communicating the brand’s message in a way that is clear, consistent and effective, strengthening the brand and allowing readers to ‘get to know’ the company. Look on it as a kind of reference manual for your writers.

Does my company need a style guide?

If you are putting written material out to the public and you have more than one person working on your copy, then the answer is probably yes, although the extent of the document will vary greatly. 

Having a style guide will make sure that all the people involved in writing for your company are clear about what is acceptable, what isn’t, which words are on-brand, which aren’t, and the tone of voice they need to maintain. It also saves time in meetings and avoids any miscommunication about what is required. 

While it takes a bit of setting up initially, the amount of time saved in the long-run certainly makes up for this.

What should a style guide include?

Although your style guide will be unique to your company, there are a number of standard elements that you would be wise to include. Here’s a round-up of some of the most common and most useful:

  • Mission statement – Your writers need to know what your company is all about and what your brand stands for. A few sentences at the start of the guide should do the trick here.
  • Audience – Who will be reading the copy? If possible, include some general information about the demographics, geographics and psychographics of your readership.
  • Purpose – What is the main aim of your website (for a web copy guide)? To inform? To engage? To entertain? It might be obvious to you, but your writers will need to see the big picture.
  • Vocabulary – Are there specific words and phrases which are on-brand (e.g. does your company prefer ‘clients’ or ‘customers’ or ‘branches’ to ‘stores’?)? Also include any words or phrases that should always be avoided. A word bank is a great idea here, categorised by sections if appropriate.
  • Jargon – Although you won’t want to include any acronyms or industry jargon in your web copy, it does no doubt exist within your company, and your writers will come across it. It is therefore useful to include a glossary of these terms so that your writers understand what is meant and can phrase this in a way that is appropriate to your audience.
  • Humour and political correctness – Is your company playful and jokey or more serious-sounding? Do you always make sure you are politically correct or do you have a brand that loves to keep things close to the wire? Your writers need to know how far they can push the boundaries, so including this information is always useful.
  • Spelling – UK or US English? ‘Travelling’ or ‘traveling’? ‘Artefact’ or ‘artifact’? ‘Cipher’ or ‘cypher’?
  • Hyphenation – When it’s acceptable to break a line with a hyphen (e.g. only with words of three syllables or more and only after a minimum of three letters), which words can be hyphenated and when compound words should be used (e.g. ‘email’ or ‘e-mail’?), and the differences between en-dashes and em-dashes.
  • Punctuation – Frequency of commas, use of single or double quotation marks for speech, book titles, quotes and so on.
  • Capitalisation – Are there particular, technical words that should always be capitalised? Should job titles be capitalised? Do headings and subheadings need to have each word capitalised, only the first letter of the first word, or the first letter of the main words?
  • Acceptable typescripts, colours, margins, spacing and so on – Much of this will probably fall into the remit of the designer to whom the copy will be sent, but if you prefer your copy submitted in a particular font or size, you can include this in the style guide too.
  • Citations and references – If your writers are carrying out research or citing other people’s websites, books or data, you will need to include details of how you would like these things to be referenced.
  • SEO – For web copy, you might choose to always include a percentage of relevant keywords in your copy and this could be outlined within the style guide (although only as an outline – you will need to tailor your requirements for each writing project separately).
  • Sample copy – Ideally you should include within your style guide some examples of previous copy that has been on-brand (and maybe an example that isn’t), so that any new writers can see the style at work first-hand and get into your company’s mindset as quickly as possible.

Ready-made style guides

There are several situations in which you might decide that some of the details above (e.g. rules about capitalisation or punctuation) are too much to include in your style guide. 

In this case, it’s acceptable to adopt a comprehensive style guide, such as The Chicago Manual of Style or the Oxford Style Manual, which cover all these areas in great detail. Most copywriters and editors will have these manuals as reference books and be happy to work within their rules. Your style guide can then focus entirely on brand-related items and tone of voice.

To conclude

When carefully conceived and consistently applied, a style guide works like glue, holding together what would otherwise be disparate pieces of copy, and bringing them together into an engaging and cohesive whole. 

So although it’s invisible to the public face of your website, a well-formulated style guide can really make a difference to the way in which your brand is presented and perceived.

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