5 Tips on Working with a Style Guide

Elizabeth Saloka

When used correctly, your style guide can be a helpful tool.  When used incorrectly, it can cause confusion and suck up time.

Don’t let your style guide derail your sane train! Bone up on these tried-and-true tips:

1. Don’t put it off.

Always have your style guide set before you start writing.  A style guide will help you establish, guide and rein in all stakeholder expectations over the course of the project.

Whatever you do, don’t fool yourself into believing you can write now and create your style guide later. You probably won’t. And if you do, rest assured, it’ll be a painful and messy process.

Tip: If you already have a style guide, give it a good once-over. What should change, if anything? What should remain the same? If you’ve found yourself ignoring major sections of the style guide in the past, consider updating it. A tight, clean style guide is a happy style guide!

2. Make sure you “get it” get it.

Don’t make assumptions about your style guide. If anything seems wonky, illogical, or even just “off,” clarify it. That goes double if other people are going to be using it, too.

Tip: Everything’s relative. Words especially. Nail down slippery terms by defining what each one means to you. If you’re going for a “conversational” tone, put together a comparison chart:

Conversational is …

3. Bob for phrases.

Okay, so, you’ve nailed down the definition of conversational. Great. Now, go a step further.  Hunt down real-world examples of conversational copy. Websites, blogs, Twitter feeds—they’re all easily accessible content mines. When you see a turn of phrase you like, copy and paste that baby into a spreadsheet.

In a nutshell, build out the left-hand column of the diagram above.

Tip: The word bank is supposed to serve as inspiration. You should not copy phrases verbatim from your word bank into your content. In other words, don’t plagiarize.

4. Check in.

After you’ve revised your style guide, run through it again. Make sure you’re on board before proceeding. This might seem tedious. And time-consuming. That’s because it is.  But, it’s the only, only, only way to stay on point.

Tip: When revising a style guide (especially if you’re not the person who created it) give justifications for your changes. This can be a short intro paragraph, or comments in the word document. Or, it could simply be verbal. Whatever you do, though, justify.

5. Honor and obey your style guide.

Inevitably, maybe after a few happy years with your style guide, you will see another one. It will appear fancy and wonderful. And you will think, “Hey, no fair! I want a fancy and wonderful style guide.”

You will be tempted to stray. DON’T. Stay the course. Ditching your style guide mid-project, or—dread of all dreads!—near the end of a project, will only lead to heartbreak.

Tip: If you’re working on an ongoing project, and you’re not happy with the style guide, consider revising your style guide for the next major content rollout.