Web Content Style Guides that Don't Suck

Kristina Halvorson

I've been writing content for websites for 11 years.

I've worked on well over two hundred websites, maybe close to three hundred.

And how many times have I had a style guide to reference for a web content project?


Of those six style guides, exactly one of them was of any real use to me. (Thank you, Medtronic.)

Our brands are constantly evolving. New products are launched, old ones retired. Services expand and shift. Trademarks, usage, legal requirements . . . for some of us, it's a full-time job just to keep up with them.

No wonder, then, that our web content is always a few steps behind. Inaccurate, irrelevant, outdated, disorganized.

How can you prevent lousy web content?

You know what I'm going to say, here. The most important thing you can do to ensure useful, usable online content is to create a web content strategy.

But the second most important thing? Invest in a web content style guide that's actually useful to the people who are creating, reviewing and approving your content.

In her indispensable guide to writing web content, Letting Go of the Words,Ginny Redish devotes an entire chapter to creating what she calls an "organic" web content style guide. Here are some highlights:

  • Start small. Let your style guide grow as issues and questions arise.
  • Don't repeat the entire universe. There are dozens of great style guides out there for grammar and usage. Pick one, and point to it in yours.
  • Focus on issues that keep coming up. Your web writers likely have the same questions over and over. Make a decision, record it, and move on.
  • Put someone in charge. The style guide isn't going to update itself. Make sure someone owns it and is accountable for its accuracy, every day.
  • Put it online. This is a no-brainer. It's your most accessible, flexible, most cost-efficient option. In fact, a wiki might be a perfect option for your organization. Just make sure it has an owner to oversee its evolution.

Don't forget voice and tone.

I'll add one more pointer:

  • Demonstrate your brand voice and tone. I'm always frustrated by brand guidelines that tell writers to be "authentic," "conversational," "professional," "friendly" . . . these words mean different things to different writers, and they're useless when you're simultaneously trying to communicate information that has to be helpful, compelling, actionable and scannable. So don't just describe voice and tone. Demonstrate it. Create a list of words to use, and words NOT to use. Show before and after edits. Point to other websites that capture the spirit of what you're after.

Creating and managing web content is a complicated enough undertaking. Simplify the process with a style guide people will actually use.

Want help creating a web content style guide? Brain Traffic's expert team of web editors and writers would love to pitch in. Contact us.