Everything you need to know about writing a style guide

Anne-Marie Chisnall | November 10, 2015

David Marsh, production editor and keeper of style for The Guardian newspaper, was a treat to listen to at PLAIN 2015. With dry, often self-deprecating humour, he managed to entertain us with perfectly sensible advice on what to include in a style guide. Since he was the first speaker on the morning after the night before (the gala dinner), we were glad he made it easy for us!

What a style guide isn’t

First came advice about what a style guide isn’t. It’s not:

What a style guide is

A style guide is ‘a set of guidelines for a publication or an organisation to enable it to achieve clear, coherent, consistent communication’. A style guide can be anything from a single page to a book. Not sure where to start? ‘Start with the top mistakes and problems.’

Need some useful categories for content? Here are David Marsh’s ‘Five elements of a style guide’.

1. Grammar

This includes getting syntax right to avoid ambiguous sentences like this:

Determined koala chases woman on a quad bike.

Image, Koala in a tree.

Koalas usually prefer hanging out in trees to quad-bike riding.
Image by Tanner Ford / CC BY

2. Punctuation

David includes a plea for the Oxford comma, to avoid ambiguity like this:

Among those interviewed were Merle Haggard’s two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duval.

3. Words and spelling

Along with commonly misspelt words, this section should include commonly confused words (affect/effect, fazed/phased) and guidance on capitalisation (‘All caps are a bit shouty’).

4. Factual information

It’s useful to include explanations or other information about topics relevant to your business. When do you use US style? Does the CEO have preferences about wording or style? What’s the difference between adrenaline and Adrenalin?

5. Values

What does your organisation stand for? What are you against? How do you treat sensitive topics? Do you use gender-neutral language? ‘Wheelchair-bound’ or ‘wheelchair user’? ‘Migrants’ or ‘refugees’?

Why does all this matter?

Put simply, ‘It shows that an organisation knows its stuff.’ Can you include guidance about clear writing? Absolutely!

Need a style guide to use in your organisation?

David ended his presentation with a generous offer: ‘If you don’t have a style guide, copy us. It’s updated all the time. Help yourself!’

See The Guardian’s style guide

Or, let us here at Write help you tailor a style guide for your organisation. We also regularly update our own:

Write’s Style Guide for New Zealanders is available from our Shop

Insights, tips, and professional development opportunities.