Originally published on May 31, 2016. Updated on June 18, 2021.
If you’ve read any kind of news, you’ve probably heard of the Associated Press and its style guide. Also known as “the journalist’s bible,” this resource is the holy grail of style knowledge for journalists and anyone else looking to get published in the many online publications that defer to this sacred text.
But for content marketers who are tasked with creating engaging content for their audiences, this one stylebook alone probably won’t meet all their brands’ needs. To quickly and effectively create content, you need a style guide specifically designed with your industry and company in mind.
A content style guide is a set of standards for the writing and formatting of content for a specific publication, organization, website, or field as a whole. Ultimately, style guides establish and enforce style rules to improve communication and foster consistency.
Your organization probably already has a style guide for design. But if your company is creating content — whether it’s posted on your company blog, LinkedIn, Medium, online publications, or other platforms — you need a style guide for your content, too.
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Sure, you can use AP’s style guide for your content. In fact, Influence & Co.’s editorial team uses it for consistency in our own content and our clients’ content. But that style guide didn’t quite meet all of our needs, so we created our own style guide to supplement.
Developing your own content style guide is important for several reasons:
Now that we’ve covered the “why” of adopting a content style guide, let’s move on to the “how.” Here are some best practices to keep in mind as you start developing your content style guide:
Find a stylebook that fits your industry and needs, and don’t repeat anything that’s already in that guide. Use your internal style guide to note any additions or adjustments that apply specifically to you. Make sure to note at the beginning of your style guide which external guide you use, as well as which dictionary your company will default to. For example, Influence & Co. uses “The Associated Press Stylebook” and Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary.
Because we’re a company that specializes in providing content marketing services to clients, our style guide is probably much more extensive than yours needs to be. But here are some sections you should consider including:
Your style guide shouldn’t be doctrine that’s forced on your team members; it should be a collaborative effort that takes into account their research, knowledge, and opinions.
Our style guide is overseen by our managing editors. They are the only ones who add to, remove from, or otherwise change our style guide. But they take into account suggestions from our editors and update the style guide accordingly — usually after conversations in our “#edits” Slack channel.
When you reference multiple sources during the content creation process, it’s vital that you communicate to teammates which resources carry the most weight. The resource at the top of the hierarchy carries the most weight and trumps all other resources, and the further you go down the list, the less weight the resources carry.
For instance, your hierarchy of resources may look like this:
If your style guide is difficult to access and navigate, no one is going to use it. Select a platform that allows you to easily update your style guide and share the revisions with team members.
Our team uses Google Docs. Managing editors can easily update the guide and send an email to the team that details any additions. Team members can save the document to their own Google Drive folders for easy access. Using Google Docs also allows us to select who can edit the document and who can only view it, which is ideal for a style guide.
Ultimately, remember that a good style guide is a living document that’s always evolving. If your content style guide remains stagnant, you’re not going to be on top of industry trends in your writing, which will lead to dated content that could damage readers’ trust in your company’s abilities.
I'm a content-obsessed word person with a passion for finding the coziest coffee shop in town. By day, I'm the director of content at Influence & Co. In my downtime, you can find me reading a book, sipping a latte, drawing, hand lettering, or watching "The Office" for the zillionth time.