How to write a style guide

In this blog post, you’ll learn why a style guide is important and what can be included in it.

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Contents
    Contents

      Why should you have a writing style guide?

      A style guide serves several purposes: it describes the way in which you communicate with the outside world and contributes to ensuring consistency in your external communication, making sure that it reflects the desired corporate style and making it easily recognisable by recipients. This is sometimes referred to as ‘linguistic branding’. A style guide may also include guidance on your internal communication. A style guide also helps to ensure that, for example, your brand voice and tone of voice are conveyed consistently when your copy is translated into other languages.

      Your brand has a unique voice that sets you apart from your competitors. When content is produced by multiple writers, inconsistencies in both tone of voice and selling messages are inevitable. This problem is compounded when content is also created in multiple languages.

      Just as we respond favourably to a familiar human voice, your customers are more responsive to a recognised brand voice. Maintaining brand voice consistency demonstrates your trustworthiness and increases your perceived reliability.

      What is a style guide?

      A writing style guide, or content style guide, provides a comprehensive framework of editorial conventions and tone-of-voice instructions for writers, translators and content stakeholders to follow. A style guide – or style manual, if you like – offers both overall guidance on, e.g., tone of voice and very specific instructions in terms of spelling conventions (US or UK spelling), abbreviations, symbols etc. (more on that below).

      Why is it important to have a style guide for each language?

      If your content is to be translated into multiple languages, you will need a style guide for each language to be able to take into account such important elements as cultural differences and level of formality. Where English and, e.g., the Scandinavian languages tend to be less formal when addressing their target audience, German and French are generally more formal. So it may be necessary to deviate from the established tone of voice.

      What is tone of voice?

      ‘Tone of voice’ is how you come across to your customers in both your written and spoken communication. It is not a question of what you communicate, but the way you do it and how it is perceived by the audience. If you opt for a very wordy and technical tone of voice using a lot of industry-specific buzzwords, there is risk you may lose your audience rather quickly. Why, for instance, say: “let us help you sculpt your linguistics toolbox” when “let us help you design your language solution” works equally well or perhaps even better.

      Another is example is “it’s a great time to be harnessing the power of the language industry”, which could be boiled down to “the language industry is able to offer more solutions than ever before.”

      It is therefore important to decide whether your tone of voice should be highly technical, factual or informal/non-technical. And remember that your tone of voice should apply to all your content. It may, of course, be relevant to adapt your tone of voice to cater for different target audiences or different communication channels. Age is definitely a differentiator if you sell products to various age groups. A global player like LEGO has to tailor their communication both to (grand)parents buying DUPLO bricks for their (grand)children and older children buying their own LEGO Technic bricks.

      How to create a style guide

      Before embarking on a style guide, a substantial amount of homework is required. You could start by defining the following two profiles:

      Company profile

      A general description of the way your company sees itself in relation to various stakeholders (customers, suppliers, other business partners and stakeholders, the local community, and of course your employees).

      What does the company want to signal to the outside world (and to its own organisation)?

      You could include your vision, mission and values.

      It is not just a question of what is being said, but also how it is said. By giving thought to these matters, you can ensure consistent and professional communication of a high quality.

      Linguistic profile

      Who is the communication intended for/targeted at (e.g. customers, technicians, investors etc. – there is rarely only one target group)?

      Your linguistic profile must support your corporate profile. It must describe your tone of voice. The tone of voice must be consistent, but tailored to your various channels of communication and your text types, for example:

      • newsletters
      • technical instructions
      • product descriptions
      • marketing material
      • presentations
      • speeches
      • analyses
      • reports
      • Facebook posts
      • Instagram posts

      The latter two texts types probably call for a more informal and playful tonality.

      You should also ask yourself the following questions:

      • What corporate values should be reflected in the communication with the outside world?
      • Is there a brand strategy, which must be supported linguistically?
      • Should the language tend towards a formal or a more informal style? How personal should the style be?
      • Is it important that translations stay close to the source text, or is a more free/transcreational approach called for? The degree of creativity often depends on the type of text.
      • Is an active or passive style of writing preferred (i.e. should the communication be direct, or should the style be more neutral and formal)?

      Aspects such as brevity and sentence length should also be taken into consideration.

      For businesses that require translation services, it would be useful to partner with a translation agency/language service provider to make sure all boxes are ticked and to get useful and relevant feedback on all the above elements.

      Once you have all elements in place, you can move on to defining your more specific writing rules.

      Writing rules to be applied

      To ensure consistency in all your communication, your style guide should contain specific writing and formatting rules to be applied. The examples listed below are all in English, but you can, of course, start preparing a style guide in any language. For many businesses, a style guide in English would often be a useful starting point.

      Abbreviations

      Should common abbreviations be used (etc., e.g., i.e.), or should abbreviations be avoided completely? In financial texts, should abbreviations such as Q1, H2, FY etc be used?

      How should abbreviations of, for example, the names of systems, departments/sections/units/centres and business areas that may not be widely known be handled? Should such names be written in full the first time they are mentioned and then be referred to using abbreviations?

      Apostrophes and quotation marks

      Should double inverted commas be used for direct speech/quotes and single inverted commas for emphasis?

      Examples:

      • “We're close to reaching our target for 2019,” explains the company’s CEO.
      • Please find more information in the ‘Quick Guide for Operators’.

      Commas in lists and commas in general

      Should there be a comma before the final ‘and’ or ‘or’ in lists (Oxford comma) or not. Should there be a comma after introductory elements, adverbial clauses, prepositional phrases?

      Examples:

      • In view of the current economic climate, we will be announcing new and ambitious growth targets next week.
      • Finally, I want to emphasise the importance of proofreading.

      Contractions

      Often contractions (it’s, you’ll, I’m etc.) are used in direct speech in English to make quotes less formal. The use of contractions may depend on the type of text and communication channel. Contractions will make, for example, intranet news less formal, whereas they may seem out of place in company policy documents.

      Currencies

      How should currencies be written? Should the international currency codes (ISO 4217) be used, for example EUR, USD and SEK. And should the currency codes be written before or after figures?

      Example:

      • USD 5 million / 5 million USD

      Dashes

      Which type of dashes should be used for parenthetical comments? Should it be en dashes (–) or unspaced em dashes (—). And what should be used to separate two elements in a range of dates or numbers.

      Examples:

      • He felt that sustainability – rather than profitability – should be top of the agenda.
      • Our results for the 2015-2019 period were driven, in particular, by sales to the US market.

      Date format

      Should the long date format (10 January 2021) or short date format (10.1.2021) be used? The long format reduces the risks of misunderstandings, but due to space restrictions, the short format may be more useful in tables and graphics.

      Gender-neutral writing

      Make sure to use inclusive, gender-neutral terms, unless you are writing about a specific gender, for example, writing about a new project for women in technology.

      If possible, avoid writing he/she, his/hers, he or she, or his or hers. Instead use plural form of the subject noun with the plural pronoun.

      Example:

      • Ask the applicants for the industrial designer job to bring in their portfolios.

      Headings and titles of documents

      Should headings be in sentence case?

      Example:

      • Risks related to Covid-19

      Or should each word be capitalised?

      Example:

      • Risks Related to Covid-19

      Million/billion

      Should million/billion be abbreviated?

      Examples:

      • Revenue for the year was DKK 15.4bn, OR
      • Revenue for the year was DKK 15.4 billion.

      Names of departments, business areas etc.

      Do your departments, business areas etc. have official English names? And are they written in capital letters?

      Example:

      • Please don’t hesitate to contact our Customer Services Department, if you have any questions, OR
      • Please don’t hesitate to contact our customer services department, if you have any questions.

      Numbers and units of measurement

      Should there be a space between symbols and numbers in English (25% vs 25 %).

      Should low numbers (ten and below) be written in words?

      Examples:

      • 2 mm
      • 4 kg
      • 25%
      • My holiday starts in 14 days’ time.
      • There is a two-week delivery time for this item.

      Per cent/%

      Should the % character be used or ‘per cent’ be written out in full?

      Product names/brands

      How should product names be written? Should they be translated or kept in the original language? Should ® and ™ be included? Unless there is an official translation, product names would normally be kept in the original language followed by an explanatory phrase.

      Example:

      • IKEA’s Platsa bed frame

      Software strings

      Do you produce texts that refer to buttons, menu items etc. in software? If yes, how should such elements to be handled? Should they be left in the original language, for example? Should they be left in the original language followed by a translation in brackets, or should they simply be translated? Should the names of buttons, menu items etc. be italicised, written in bold, in inverted commas or simply capitalised?

      Example:

      • Click Cancel / Click ‘Cancel’ / Click Cancel (Avbryt)

      Spelling

      Do you prefer British English or American English spelling? The choice of spelling would often depend on where you do business and where any subsidiaries are located. You may also decide to use both types of spelling to cater for both audiences.

      Technical instructions – active or passive voice

      Do you prefer to use the active voice (including imperatives) or passive voice, for example in technical instructions? An active voice means shorter sentences, which are often easier to understand than longer ones.

      • Active (imperatives): Check the valve, and install again.
      • Passive: The valve should be checked before installing it again.

      Telephone numbers

      How should phone numbers be written? With or without spaces?

      Time

      Should the 24-hour clock (with colon) be used? It is easier for non-native English speakers to understand than the 12-hour clock.

      Example:

      • We arrive on Tuesday at 14:00 and not We arrive on Tuesday at 2 pm.

      Titles

      Should titles and job descriptions be in lower case when used generically or descriptively – and capitalised when used immediately in front of a person’s name?

      Examples:

      • John Eriksson, department manager
      • Department Manager John Eriksson

      Are titles translated, or do all employees in your company have English titles?

      URLs

      How should URLs be written? With or without ‘www’?

      Other rules

      You may have other company-specific rules that are relevant both in connection with copywriting and translation.

      How Semantix can help you

      Creating a style guide is no simple task. It takes experience and an expert hand to create a style guide that really gets results. That’s where we come in.

      We work with you to gather information about your brand's core values, stylistic preferences and much more, to create standardised, easy-to-follow guidelines.

      Whether you want a new style guide or a localised version for one of your markets, our experts help you to focus on and refine your brand message for the international marketplace

      So whether you want your brand’s tone of voice to be formal or informal, use a specific tense or grammatical voice, Semantix can help you identify these conventions – not just in English, but in all your corporate languages.

      Speed up your workflow

      Your style guide provides a brand-wide reference for translators. Whether your content team is localising your website pages, social media posts or any other marketing material, it’s important your brand voice and message are consistent.

      It’s also vital that content stakeholders have a reference document on which to base their feedback and validation. Working within the framework of a style guide also reduces time spent on feedback and editing.

      There are, in other words, many arguments for having a style guide.

      Style guide resources and examples

      A good way of getting a head start on your style guide project, is to take inspiration from already existing style guides. There are several good examples online, and they are not limited to brands only. Several good examples can also be found in academia and in journalism.

      Would you like to find out more about our style guides?