What’s in a style guide and why you need one

Do you need a style guide for the words your organisation writes? We say ‘yes’.

Style is a way of presenting yourself to the world. You express your organisation’s personality as much through your words as through visual elements like branding. So consistent style in both is important.

What’s the difference between rules, fashion, and style?

Like clothing and graphic design, writing has rules, fashions, and styles.
In clothing:

Image, Woman with yellow high heels, fishnet stockings, tartan skirt, stripy shirt, checked jacket, and stripy bag.

Style lets you express your personality. Image by Godisable Jacob / CC0

Graphic designers follow rules that experience and research tell them work: rules about balance and colour and shape. We see fashion in design, too, as designers adopt certain colours, fonts, and ways of blocking out the page. Designers also create visual style guides for clients: a set of design decisions that expresses the organisation’s personality and establishes its brand.

The same applies to words. In writing:

What message are you sending to readers?

Let’s take a simple example. In a document with headings, will you make them title case or sentence case? That is, will you give an initial capital to every meaningful word in the heading, like this?

How to Capitalise a Title-Case Heading, Described by Judy

Or will you use initial capitals only for the first word and for any proper nouns, like this?

How to capitalise a sentence-case heading, described by Judy

Title case feels a little old-fashioned and formal. It isn’t wrong, and if that style is what works for your market, go for it.

Sentence case is marginally easier for people to read, since their eye doesn’t keep getting hooked on all those extra capitals. It also has a more modern feel.

A third possibility is that you haven’t decided which style you want, so you end up with a mixture. If you have no style guide or style sheet, and every member of your team writes headings to their own preference, you have a high chance of being in this third group on at least some of your style decisions.

Image, Old books on a shelf, with titles in title case and all caps.

Choose a capitalisation style that suits your organisation and your market. Image by 5477687 / CC0

What might be in your style guide?

A simple style sheet might record the specific decisions you make on a single document project, or on a connected set of documents. An organisation-wide style guide might include some general rules, as well as straight style decisions. Here are the first thirteen items on the table of contents of The Write Style Guide:

By using a style guide to make sure your documents are correct and consistent, you’ll save time researching rules and making on-the-fly style decisions. You’ll also present your organisation as it wishes to be seen, and you’ll avoid confusing your readers.

Buy a copy of The Write Style Guide

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