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Sep 03, 2021 BY Andrew Buck Branding, Marketing

Say It With Style: Creating a Copy Style Guide

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You must be trusted. If your organization is to accomplish anything of note, the people you exist to serve must trust you. To be trusted, you must be steady. Consistent. You must adhere to core principles, and you must see them through, even when shortcuts tempt you.

But it’s not enough to be trust-worthy. Your trustworthiness must also manifest itself in the things your organization produces and publishes. Your audiences must be able to see your integrity in the words you write, the images you choose to post, the tone of your organizational voice, and more.

In other words, you need to craft and commit to a copy style guide.

What is a Copy Style Guide?

A set of unshakeable (though not unchangeable) rules about how your organization uses language. It should be the end-all-be-all reference for anyone producing content on behalf of your organization.

What to Include in a Copy Style Guide

Your organization is unique, but most organizations find it helpful to include the following in a copywriting style guide:

Vocabulary

You likely have industry or organizational terminology that no one else uses. Identify them and place them into your guide. For each phrase, define how and when it should—and shouldn’t—be used. If its definition is potentially fuzzy, define it clearly. Indicate whether the word/phrase requires any special capitalization or formatting (such as italics).

This section is especially useful for any third parties creating content on behalf of your organization.

Tone and Voice

These two words mean the same thing, at least in this instance. In the “Tone” or “Voice” section, list adjectives and descriptive phrases that help guide a piece of writing’s personality. Anyone reading it, no matter how familiar they are with you or your work, should be able to form a quick idea of what you’re “all about.” Does your organization say it’s professional? Approachable? Include some examples from your website that support each adjective.

Also, be careful about conflicting words. Often, organizations claim they want to be “formal” but “approachable.” Those are essentially opposites. Drop one of them, or both, or get more specific.

You could also include any instance where your voice and tone shift. Do you grant yourself more freedom and familiarity when you email your most engaged users versus total strangers on a social media post?

Best Practices

If you have more than one person producing content, that content is subject to individual preferences and styles. Include best practices in your style guide to create alignment and consistency across your content. Your best practices could span from how something looks visually to word counts for a certain communications channel. Provide examples from your website and marketing emails if possible.

Some examples of organizational best practices for style:

  • We want to use as few words as possible and provide succinct content on our blog. The word count for blog articles should not exceed 800.
  • Use full names on first reference with the acronym in parenthesis. The acronym may be used freely in every subsequent instance. (ex. We spoke to the National Association of Mighty Citizens (NAMC) to get their response to the newly-released data).
  • Always default to using contractions unless it impairs readability to create a more casual tone.
  • Test the reading grade level for each blog post. If the reading level is above 8.0, edit the piece until it’s under.

Your best practices should be big, stylistic rules that embody your organization’s essence. The best test to determine whether your best practices are worth including is: Do these authentically represent us? Remember, your users are smart; they can spot a fake performance from megabytes away.

Styling

Here, you’re considering all the punctuation and styling elements you want to standardize. A limited list of these considerations might include:

  • Capitalization
  • Oxford comma or not?
  • Em dash
  • Bullet & number lists
  • Hyperlinks
  • Contractions
  • Semicolons
  • Colons
  • When we put text in bold
  • When we put it in italics
  • Ellipses

This is also the place to note if your organization follows an already-established writing style, such as AP style or Chicago style.

Content Management System Modularity

If you publish content using a Content Management System (CMS), you may choose to include a section for best practices and tips for building out content in the CMS. This could include rules for formatting, alt text, headings, attribution, etc.

Content Governance

Content governance is the documented set of protocols that ensures you can create, publish, and maintain content that helps your organization better meet its goals. At Mighty Citizen, a copy style guide is typically one part of a content governance plan, which covers other important concerns such as “workflows” and “editorial authority.” We mention content governance here to emphasize how content—especially the written words part of content—is part of a larger ecosystem; writing is a key part of your entire reason for existence. So we must treat it with special care.

With a copy style guide, balance is key. You need to set enough rules to keep everyone in sync but not so many that you stifle creativity in your language. The most valuable thing your organization can do for your copy style guide is to hire a skilled writer, make sure they understand your copy style guide and give them the freedom to play with components like length, format, and voice. Don’t be afraid to experiment with messaging!

Mighty Citizen Can Help

Need help distilling your brand and messaging down to a copy style guide? Our content experts would love to hear about how we can be a partner. Reach out to start a conversation!

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