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How to Write an Internal Content Style Guide Without Breaking a Sweat

Consistently using headings, subheadings and the same spellings of weird words is a piece to the confidence puzzle, and it's really easy to blow it.

by Beth PopNikolov

Consistency is a sign of professionalism. It's a sign to your readers that you know what's going on and you have a plan for what you're doing. Consistently using headings, subheadings and the same spellings of weird words is a piece to the confidence puzzle, and it's really easy to blow it.

Any time we complete the content strategy phase with clients, we hand them documentation detailing how their content should sound and what it should say. (I talk a lot more about the details of what's in our content strategy deliverable in this article.)

It's simple enough to follow that documentation as a content style guide, but it's missing a key element: the nitty gritty details of how certain words should be written and content should be formatted.

A strong Content Style Guide should include your:

  • Content Strategy Statement
  • Brand voice
  • Key messages
  • Content formatting rules -- headings, subheadings, when to use bold or italics
  • Dictionary of frequently used terms including their proper spelling and definition

When we launched the blog, we all just kind of went for it when it came to writing articles. We'd done the research. We brainstormed the articles we wanted. We'd picked the perfect design for the site. What else was there left to do?

Zach spent a week furiously writing and I would diligently edit and make changes here and there based on my background in standard English grammar and syntax, but other than that we didn't have a clear "This is how we write this. This is not how we write that." guide.

Granted, we didn't encounter any major disasters, but I constantly found myself staring at the words "how to" and wondering if a How-to Video should be spelled "How-to," "How-To" or "How to."

Finally I consulted the AP Stylebook and found that the official spelling is "How-to." Then I spent several hours painfully combing through old blog posts to correct our mistake and make sure everything was consistent going forward.

If we'd had a style guide, this situation could have been easily avoided.

Documenting your brand's writing style can sound like an overwhelming task, but odds are you and your team already follow some unspoken rules.

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Phase 1 - Company and Industry Lingo

Every good writer knows to avoid jargon in your writing to make your content clear and specific. However, every industry has at least a view unique vocabulary words.

In the example I wrote about above, our blog talks a lot about how-to videos and how-to blogs because we're talking about consumers that complete projects themselves. So that's something we should have thought about before we started writing.

Schedule a meeting with your writing staff, marketing staff and Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) to discuss what words are unique to your company and how they should be spelled.

Here are a few things to consider to get you started:

  • Product names
    • Do they always need to followed with the trademark symbol?
    • Should they be written in bold?
    • Can they ever be abbreviated?
  • Acronyms
    • Do you always need to explain what an acronym stands for?
    • Even a commonly used one?
    • How will you pluralize an acronym? (e.g. SMEs vs SME's)
    • What words are so commonly referred to in their acronym form that people have forgotten what they actually stand for?
  • Industry lingo
    • What words will experts in our industry expect us to use? (e.g. Should "backlog" be one word or two?)
    • Clearly define industry terms to make sure everyone is using them consistently and clearly.
    • What industry terms are too technical and will need to have a more comprehensible term assigned to them?
  • Commonly used words
    • What words or terms frequently come up in your writing like how-to did for us?
    • Agree on how these words should be written, used and defined.

Phase 2 - The Content Audit Flashlight

If your brand is in the process of a website redesign, then you're hopefully taking a hard and long look at your content as well, which should include a content audit.

Talk with those in charge of the audit and ask them to document frequently used words or terms and flag inconsistencies in usage, spelling or if they are inconsistently written in italics, bold or other ways of attempting to call attention to them.

Also be on the look out for inconsistencies in styling content and writing numbers. For example, do you have concrete rules about headings, subheadings and bolded text? What about how your team should write numbers - should you write out the number as "three," or are you using numerals for all numbers?

Ideally, the writing team will be able to decide on how these inconsistencies should be handled in the future. If necessary, ask your marketing or branding teams about inconsistencies directly related to product names or marketing campaigns.

Phase 3 - Let it Grow

Keep a digital copy of your Content Style Guide so it can be easily updated as new words arise or new products are launched.

Using a company wiki-page is a great way to give everyone access to the guide and allow it to be easily changed. Try keeping words in alphabetical order for easy reference.

Don't be too hesitant about adding words to your growing style guide dictionary. If one person has a question about how a word should be used or spelled, then more people probably have the same question as well.

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