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Style Guides: The Tools All the Pros Use

By Chris Edmonds

Short and sweet: If you’re in the communications game, you need a style guide. And, if you already have one, you need to use it and keep it fresh. There’s not a lot of glamor in putting together a set of standards for how you write and design your content, but a style guide is a foundational tool that offers great benefits at very little cost.

Why do you need a style guide?

Here’s our view on a few of the main reasons:

1) Consistency and efficiency: A well-used guide makes sure that your communications always sound the same: like you. It also means you can answer a question once, put that answer in the guide, and never have to repeat yourself again (though you may find yourself repeating, “It’s in the style guide”—not much we can do to help you there, unfortunately).

2) One-time assembly required: If built well, a guide is a durable tool. You’ll want to touch it up every now and again, but a guide’s purpose is to be a timeless document.

3) Risk reduction: The guide should be a shared document, the repository for your institutional rules and preferences. It mitigates the loss of any one editor or writer and makes it easier to onboard new staff when you’re growing.

How do you build a style guide?

In our experience, the most common route is to take an existing guide or guides (e.g., the Chicago Manual of Style, the New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, or the Associated Press Stylebook) and augment that with whatever rules are specific to your company. This provides two real benefits: it saves on construction costs, and it makes sure you sound most like yourself in the areas that are most important to you.

Yeah, OK, but do you really need a style guide?

To answer a question with a question: Are you writing words that you expect anyone else to read? If the answer’s yes—be it branded content, RFPs, newsletters, quarterly or strategic reports—you need a style guide. If you’re in the game, this is your playbook.

Chris Edmonds, director of operations/senior editor, spent 13 years working at newspapers before joining N2. From the major metro to the tiny island weekly, every publication he’s ever worked on has had a well-used style guide.

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