Create your company’s editorial style guide in six steps

I love style guides so much that I’m writing a numbered list about them.

With absolutely zero ado:

1. Recognize you have a problem.

Every company that engages in any sort of marketing—which means every company—needs to ensure consistency in its publicly available materials. The reason is simple: In a world crowded with competitors, your communications need to appear professional and consistent to gain and keep credibility. Inconsistent use of punctuation, spelling, syntax, formatting, and so forth points to a culture of sloppiness and corner-cutting. And that’s just not your style.

The only way to ensure consistency across platforms, departments, and authors is to have an in-house style guide, the sanctity of which is guarded (usually) by your communications team. But remember that your end users could be anyone in the organization, so your approach must account for a wide range of use cases and writing skill levels.

2. Choose a side: AP style or Chicago style.

The writing and editing communities have generally coalesced around two major style guides: The AP Stylebook, preferred by journalists and PR professionals, and The Chicago Manual of Style, preferred by the publishing industry.

At Leff Communications, like many of our clients, we adhere to Chicago style because of its unparalleled breadth and ability to answer every conceivable question. The book has been published and updated for more than 100 years by the University of Chicago Press, and the latest version (16th edition) was released in 2010. You may not like flipping through the 1,000-page book itself, but the online version has vastly simplified navigation of its intricacies.

A third, less-popular stylebook option for B2B content marketing is the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, which—as its title suggests—is meant more for researchers than for a general business audience. If you’re a research-heavy organization, I could see a valid argument—but the rest of the business world generally chooses either AP or Chicago.

Whatever you decide to do, pick a guide and stick to it. This is an important step because it will pre-fill a huge number of style consistency questions, such as whether or not to use an Oxford comma. You should also choose a go-to dictionary for definitive spelling questions; Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary is a good choice used by a large number of companies, including ours.

3. Choose a structure

Some style guides are built as an A–Z list (abbreviations, acronyms, addresses), while others create buckets for categories such as punctuation and spelling. There’s no wrong answer; the great thing about electronic documents is how easy they make it to search for a specific term.

4. Fit the guide to your company.

Many companies create an in-house style guide for two reasons: first, to make it easier to address common questions without flipping through the 1,000-page Chicago Manual of Style (what’s the difference between hyphens, em dashes, and en dashes?), and second, to establish rules that the common style books can’t answer about the quirks of the company’s branding guidelines (do your readers need you to spell out abbreviations such as “GDP” and “CEO” on first mention? How are authors listed—alphabetically or by seniority?).

Crowdsource the first version of your style guide by querying your content creators on points of confusion. When we started building the Leff Communications style guide this past year, I asked all the editors on the team to send me a list of the things they constantly have to look up. Their responses provided rich and immediately relevant material, and we built out entries to answer each specific question.

5. Make the guide convenient and adaptable.

Don’t: Email the style guide out once and never mention it again.

Do: Keep it somewhere convenient, where you can easily update it as new questions arise.

We keep our in-house style guide on Dropbox, which is our digital filing system for both internal and client work, so no one has an excuse for not being able to find it. We also update it constantly as we think of more things we struggle to remember. As a result of this process, we also created a footnote guide, a proofing checklist, and other materials that reinforce consistency of style. In this way, the style guide has provided the foundation for a suite of reference materials.

6. Enforce your style rules.

We’ve all worked with partners, subject matter experts, and writers who think every word they type is gold—and thus they get fussy when you correct them. This wishy-washy approach to style is a death sentence; once you let the lead partner (or anyone) start messing around outside the lines, you’ve given up the sanctity of consistency.

Ensure your editorial process includes an internal or external copy editor and a proofreader who are empowered to enforce style rules—even if it means miffing the writers who don’t want you to murder their darlings. If people start to drift, mark up their copy and gently remind them that there are rules in place, so no, they cannot put two spaces after a period.

For companies at any stage of this journey, we’re happy to share our style guide and consult on tricky questions. Our email addresses are on the contact page, or you can always Tweet us @LeffComm.

Brittany Williams

Brittany is the editorial director at Leff. She is passionate about helping clients tell their stories through incisive, fact-based narratives. Every once in awhile, she takes a break to muse on rhetorical devices, grammar, and content strategy on the Leff Communications blog. Follow Brittany on Twitter @britpetersen.

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