A good style guide can boost consistency, settle arguments, and save time.
If your company or client has a style guide, follow it.
If not, you can help them develop one. Fast. Unlike what you may think, you don’t need to sink days into creating a style guide.
Here are two quick methods I learned from a seasoned editor who worked for many book publishing houses.
She had the same issue as any contract white paper writer:
How do you keep house styles straight when you’re working for several different clients at once?
Method #1: Style guide on-the-fly
Here’s how to create a style guide as you work on drafting or revising a white paper.
1. Start a second file in Word and record any term that you could handle in more than one way, such as “email” or “e-mail.”
2. Decide which way you prefer, say “e-mail.”
3. Note your decision in your style guide like this: e-mail not email
4. Then do a find & replace to make every occurrence in your white paper consistent. In this case, change email to e-mail.
5. Continue to compile entries and arrange them in alphabetical order.
At the end of yo
ur session, you will have the start of a style guide for your client, plus a white paper that follows it.
Decide whether to give this to your client as a bonus deliverable. Why not? For a smaller company, this may be all that they ever need.
Method #2: Style guide in 60 minutes
Here’s a way to create a more formal style guide in about an hour.
1. Gather a good set of input documents from your company or client, including press releases, marketing materials, manuals, and any previous white papers.
2. Start a new file and enter something like:
Style Guide for [Company] as of [Date]
3. Start scanning through the first document for any terms that you could handle in more than one way, such as “smart phone” or “smartphone.”
4. Type in all the alternatives.
Hint: If you’re looking at PDFs or Word files on screen, search for each alternative and note how often it occurs. If all else is equal, use the more popular alternative.
4. Then scan for the next term.
On the first few pages, you’ll find lots. This will taper off as you capture all the main terms.
5. Continue eyeballing and enter each new term in alphabetical order. You may want to stop after you’ve scanned through a good sampling for 45 minutes or so.
6. Then take 10 minutes to run through your list and decide how you prefer to handle each term.
7. If you need to call a meeting, use your file as the agenda. Hold a quick conference call to get some decisions.
Hint: Try to be consistent on related families of terms, such as “e-book” and “e-commerce” and “e-mail” and “e-” everything else.
At the end of your session, you will have the start of a style guide for your client.
What to cover in a style guide
A style guide isn’t just about spelling.
You can also include how to format the elements of a page: various levels of headings, callouts, tables, figure titles, headers and footers, table of contents, footnotes, and so on.
Many companies have guidelines on how to use logos and product names.
You can attach templates for various types of documents, if any exist. And you can point to external references.
Although many writers are self-admitted “word nerds” we need to keep the eye on the ball: helping our company or client generate leads and cement sales. Yes, style guides are important… but not as important as that.
No style guide adds anything to the bottom line, compared to a truly effective white paper.
Some style guides to check out
The Associated Press Style Book
This is one of the most popular style guides used by today’s B2B content writers. It’s arranged alphabetically for quick reference.
Opening my copy at random, I found entries for dot-com, double-click, Down syndrome and Drambuie… all words that I wasn’t sure how to spell or hyphenate.
I prefer the spiral-bound edition from 2018 that opens flat. This is my personal favorite, and I keep it on my desk close at hand at all times.
The Elements of Style
Good taste is timeless, as this slim volume demonstrates.
The free online version is the first edition as published in 1918. Rules like “omit needless words” and “use definite, specific, concrete language” are the prime directives for any writer.
Formerly published as a thick book, the 2018 update of this guide is now found online for free.
If you’re writing about technology, or struggling to find the right term for something you see on the screen, this book is a good bet. For example, the A to Z word lists cover everything from “abort” to “zoom.”
This online resource has lots of good advice about writing clearly about technology. It’s a great place to look for some guidance and inspiration.
The Yahoo! Style Guide
This title is billed as “the ultimate sourcebook for writing, editing, and creating content for the digital world.” Who wouldn’t want that?
And it turns out that it’s surprisingly good.
See my full review here. You can pick up a used hardcover copy for less than $10 from Amazon. It’s worth it.
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