Creating a Style Guide for Your Content: How SmartBug Did It
February 12, 2019
At SmartBug Media, to quote Taylor Swift, “We never go out of style.”
Although we are a classy bunch, I’m not referring to our taste in fashion, culture, social skills, or fearlessness in quoting Taylor Swift at the start of a blog post. I’m referencing the content we write, both internally and for our clients—we have developed an editorial style guide for our content, and we stick to it as much as possible.
Before I started writing and editing for SmartBug, I worked in newspapers for more than two decades, during which the importance of consistency and clean copy was drilled into my brain. So, when I started seeing terms spelled three different ways in content our agency produced, I wanted to scream. The problem wasn’t that my coworkers were careless, but rather, people tend to be unconsciously more focused on getting the words out of their heads and not think about what those words look like on the screen. A style guide would help them evaluate they should use words and punctuation, as well as give editors a framework for consistency and a handy reference.
With that in mind, I set out to create SmartBug Style—an internal style guide, optimized for our needs and for inbound marketing, that we would follow for our internal content as well as our clients’ content. I talked to my coworkers and asked how they prefer to use certain terms and stylistic devices. I looked at what major style guides were doing. And in some cases, after seeing terms used those three different ways, I made a command decision and picked one, thus establishing our official style.
Your style guide doesn’t need to be as elaborate as ours (I fully admit I’m a big geek on grammar, spelling, and usage), but your content will improve with a basic editorial blueprint. Here are some tips for creating your own stylebook:
The Need for Style
I’ve written about editorial consistency before: How you write something isn’t quite as important as that you write it the same way every time. That doesn’t mean you can drown your content in run-on sentences, clichés, and questionable punctuation—good writing still matters. However, if given a choice between two theoretically correct constructions (e.g., pushups or push-ups), pick one and stick with it in everything your organization writes.
If done correctly, an editorial style guide not only creates cleaner copy, but also creates better writers. Coworkers who know, for example, when they should use “that” or “which” deliver copy that (ta-da!) is easier to edit, is easier to read, and more successfully appeals to its target audience.
Pick a Path
Plenty of established stylebooks exist that organizations of every industry and purpose use to guide their written content. These include:
- Associated Press: Preferred by news organizations—almost every news article you read is AP.
- The Chicago Manual of Style: Perhaps the most popular style guide, Chicago is mostly used for literary and published works, as well as a wide range of online content.
- MLA: Modern Language Association guidelines are mostly used for academic research and content.
- APA: The style guide of the American Psychological Association doubles as a standard for scholarly works and academic journal articles, particularly in the sciences.
Although these generally are regarded as the big four, more industry-specific style guides also help with getting terms and usage correct. For example, Microsoft and IBM have their own style preferences for technical terms; the American Medical Association Manual of Style is commonly used for healthcare content.
Choosing one of these guides will serve you well. AP or Chicago are your best bets—they are easy style guides that are reader-friendly, and most people are familiar with the standards without realizing it. Moreover, if you are hiring professional writers and editors to create your content, they generally will know AP and Chicago best.
That said, you can create a style guide to suit your own needs. Plenty of organizations—even news organizations—do this. Have you ever noticed how The New York Times uses Mr. and Ms. before people’s names on second reference? That’s unique to its own style preferences.
When I started the style guide process for SmartBug, I wanted to cement an efficient way for our writers and our marketing experts to deliver content that made sense for them and the target audience. Chicago is so common, and AP is so focused on ease of reading. My goal was to use the best of both (though SmartBug Style is mostly Chicago) and also set guidelines that worked well for inbound marketing.
Get It in Writing
Over the years, coworkers kept coming to me with style questions. I’m always happy to help with answers, but there’s a better way for all parties: Build a living file where your company’s unique style preferences reside. I created a Google Doc with SmartBug’s fledgling style guide and kept adding to it over the years. Our entire staff has access to it, and my fellow senior writer and I update it as needed. Here’s an example page of our style document:
An important step toward developing your style guide is identifying terms that are uniquely spelled or used for your industry. Sometimes, you’ll encounter usages that go against conventional grammar wisdom. Add such terms to your stylebook, and carefully consider if you want to set a style that goes against industry norms. At SmartBug, we generally defer to our clients’ preferences on industry terms.
At first, you don’t want to include everything in your style guide—in fact, your coworkers might be better served if the guide is less extensive. You can always add entries later as questions come up. That said, some key considerations—usages that widely vary among organizations and style guides—you should establish from the outset include:
- The Oxford comma: In a series of items, a comma used after the second-to-last item, before the conjunction, is called an Oxford or serial comma. Chicago uses it; AP doesn’t. During my newspaper career, I never subscribed to it, but when I started working outside the industry, I began to come around to its merit. Whichever side of the debate you fall on, pick a preference now and be married to it.
- Numbers: Decide which numbers you will spell out and which you will keep as numerals. Most style guides use words for single-digit numbers and stick with numerals for everything else, although Chicago provides an option to spell out two-digit numbers. Also, you may want to choose only numerals for headers and/or spell out any number in a quotation.
- Capitalization: Your organization or industry may reference certain things that, on the surface, are common nouns but for emphasis you may want to capitalize. Also, decide if you want to go up/down style in headers and display text.
- Names of things: If you reference a movie, book, or website, do you want the title in quotes or italics? Do you want to call people by their first or last names on second reference? Do you want to capitalize people’s job titles in copy? These considerations may seem minor, but if you don’t decide on them for your stylebook, you’ll see them inconsistently handled in content again and again.
- Dashes and hyphens: I’m an em dash junkie, which is why I consider this an important decision—do you put spaces on either side of a dash (like AP does) or directly connect the words (like Chicago does)? Hyphens are seemingly just hyphens, but Chicago tells you to use an en dash in a number range (e.g., 5–8 p.m.). Personally, that seems like extra work, but it’s something else you should address when developing your style guide.
Some people argue that an editorial style guide should be absolute—the rules set forth in it should be followed blindly. Although a style guide is meant to be an authority on how content is written, it also needs to be a little fluid. If, for example, following style creates a construction that reads funny or looks unwieldy, don’t hesitate to ignore the guidelines as needed. Don’t make something more difficult to read just because your style guide mandates it.
Moreover, don’t be afraid to change your stylebook if a guideline isn’t working well, as your content develops over time, or even just philosophically. I came around on the singular they—even though I don’t like using it, I recognized that, in this day and age, it has its merit (for the record, AP also begrudgingly accepts it). Make your style guide work for you; it should be an asset, not an obstacle.
About the author
Joe Gillespie is Director of Inbound Copy for SmartBug Media. He graduated from Marquette University with a B.A. in journalism and, before coming to SmartBug, was a two-decade veteran of the newspaper industry. Read more articles by Joe Gillespie.