Tips For Writing An Online Style Guide

One of the most popular articles we’ve written at Marketing.com.au is Top 5 Tips for Writing a Style Guide. In today’s digital age, it’s also important for marketers (especially online and digital specialists) to use an online style guide. Writing for the web and generating content can be quite daunting, so we thought we’d share some useful information on online style guides.

A style guide is a set of guidelines that is referenced when writing any communications. A style guide ensures any communications from a company are always consistent and professional, even with multiple authors. An online style guide on the other hand, whilst similar, is specifically tailored for writing and optimising content to be published on the web. It ensures all online communications reflect your overall brand. When preparing your own online style guide, be sure to use plenty of examples, images and sample code. We also like the idea of distributing a reference or cheat sheet which contains key elements that people can post around their workspace.

Here a couple of resources we came across that we highly recommend if you are working on creating your own online style guide.

Yahoo! Style Guide

We’re big fans of the Yahoo! Style Guide It’s one of those simple resources that’s really easy and straightforward to use. It was designed specifically with writing for the web in mind.

Some the key things we found really useful were:

  • Tips on writing for an online audience and making sure that you speak to your entire audience.
  • Understanding the importance of readability of your content and making sure it is ‘easy to scan’ by visitors.
  • Making sure you use neutral language, consistent terminology as well as short and clear sentences.
  • Ensuring that your content is error free (so you are not penalised by search engines). There is also a really handy list of words which is a useful reference.
  • It also helps you ensure your web pages are optimised for search engines, so you appear higher in search results.
  • The guide also has tips on improving your user interface (UI) to make sure visitors can easily navigate around your website.
  • It also addresses how to streamline content to make it email and mobile friendly.
  • You will also find some of the standard style guide references to grammer, punctuation etc.
  • The Yahoo! Style Guide also features some useful HTML code references. We’ve all seen pages that have random symbols that appear because text isn’t rendering correctly. It can be really confusing to read, particularly when the same content is shared across multiple channels.

We’ve also included a short video introduction for you below that we came across where Yahoo! Senior Editorial Director Chris Barr discusses the Yahoo! Style Guide.

Web Style Guide

In addition to the Yahoo! Style Guide, we also highly recommend checking out the Web Style Guide. This guide was written by Patrick J. Lynch who is the Director of Special Technology Projects from the well renowned Yale University’s Information Technology Services. The guide has some other handy tips for styling content specifically for the web. We also found the illustrations used to be particularly handy in demonstrating the principles.

Finally, it’s also an interesting exercise to see how other companies and brands structure their style guides. If you perform a search of “online style guide” there are many great examples from simple single page documents through to detailed guides.

If you’ve come across any other resources you would recommend for creating an online style guide, please share them with us below.

Lacking Style? Top 5 Tips for Writing a Style Guide

With such a variety of style guides out there it can be quite overwhelming trying to work out how to write one.

Essentially, a style guide (or brand manual) should be tailor made to suit the individual, company or brand. It is designed to help protect the consistency of your image. If it does that, then you can’t go wrong.

Style guides are commonly used in the world of media, public relations and publishing. A style guide contains a set of guidelines that should be referenced when writing any communications. A style guide ensures that the communications from a company are always consistent and professional, even when there are multiple authors.

A style guide is also a great time saver for a new starter, they can quickly get a feel for the general style requirements without having to ask a hundred questions.

Some of the common elements we have found referenced in style guides include (but are not limited to):

  • Titles and terms – e.g how the company name should be referenced, title of the Managing Director etc.
  • Trademarks
  • Symbols or special characters
  • Abbreviations
  • Logo and colour palette references – e.g minimum size for logo, colour options, background options etc. Also, where to find the accompanying files in various formats and resolutions.
  • Format – e.g use of fonts and styles etc.
  • Indentations
  • Sentence lengths
  • Language, tone and voice preferences – e.g plain english, slang, formal, casual, present, past, third person etc.
  • Spelling – e.g American or English spelling etc.
  • Punctuation – e.g use of commas, semi-colons, parentheses, question marks, exclamation marks, hypens etc.
  • Headings – e.g use of capitalisation or not, format, sub headings etc.
  • Bullet formats and lists
  • Page numbers – e.g will you display them at top, bottom, left, right or centred etc.
  • Time, date, number, speed, percentages, scores and currency format preferences
  • Quotations – e.g how they should appear and be referenced etc.
  • URL formats

Top 5 tips

We browsed through many different style guides and guides on ‘how to’ write them and these are our top five key take outs:

1. Keep it simple – Don’t get bogged down in arduous detail. No one is going to read it. Ideally a style guide should be less than 5 pages in length (unless your a large multi-national corporation obviously). Remember the document should be a reference. At the very minimum include the components that are most likely going to impact on consistency, such as your logo. If you don’t provide your logo in an easy accessible manner (ideally in multiple formats), people will just grab whatever they can from your website or a search engine.

2. Include a table of contents – This will help make the document more user friendly. You may think that everyone will read your document thoroughly but you’ll be lucky if people get past the first page.

3. Consistency is key – Settle those common usage rules right from the get go. For example, will you be using ‘I’, ‘We’ ,’He’, ‘She’, ‘They’, ‘The company’ etc. It doesn’t really matter what you use just make a decision and stick with it. It’s also great to provide concise examples e.g:

  • Correct – 18 June 2012
  • Incorrect – 18th of June 2012

4. Collaborate and allow for feedback – Why not send a draft of your style guide around to a couple of the other content writers to get feedback before you release the document. That way you can double check you haven’t missed anything and also ensure others feel comfortable using it.

5. Make it an active reference – Don’t just send out an email with an attachment and expect it to be implemented. Make your style guide an active and living document. Hold interactive training sessions to roll out the style guide so you can discuss it, take feedback and emphasise its importance. Also publish a copy online or on your local Intranet so that it can be easily referenced at all times.

If you want some further references on writing a style guide, check out the list of resources on Wikipedia.

If you have any tips or experiences you’d like to share about writing style guides, we’d love to hear from you on the comments below.