Consistent Communication: Create An Editorial Style Guide For Your Company

August 7, 2014
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Written by Jamie Smith

Consistent Communication: Create An Editorial Style Guide For Your Company

Hundreds, if not thousands of words flow out of your company every week be it in written communication, project pitches or through your content marketing efforts such as social media and a company blog.

Here’s a question: are you presenting a unified message in all these communications? Is one person who is writing to represent your company using one style and another person using a completely different style? That can not only get confusing, it’s bad for branding.

Establishing an editorial style guide is vital for any company that uses any form of written communication, be it in print or online. A style guide is especially important for companies that have multiple employees or contract writers creating content on the business’ behalf.

Let’s take a moment to clarify something. You might be thinking “But our marketing/design agency already created a style sheet for us.” That was more than likely a design style sheet that address colors in your logo and website design issues. An editorial style guide is a set of “rules,” so to speak, that addresses how your company communicates in written words.

Why do we need this set of rules? Our writers are good at what they do

There’s no doubt your communications team, be it employees or freelancers, are top-notch. But even amazing writers need a guideline to know how to express thoughts consistently.

Editorial style guides are even important for a one-person communication team because unless that person is planning to work at the company for the rest of his or her natural life, there will eventually be someone new creating content. It will be obvious to many readers when someone new comes and minor and not so minor style issues change.

A company editorial style guide is important for several reasons including branding and time efficiency. Branding is all about reputation and how the world sees your company, right? People will notice if you use inconsistent communication, especially if it’s in the same document. It’s important to always appear that you know what you’re doing as a company and being able to communicate effectively and consistently is a big part of that image.

Editorial style guidelines can also protect your branding in that it provides a consistent way for your company name to appear. For example, are you an affiliate that must have the copyright symbol in your name on first mention? That’s important to note.

Another reason to have an editorial style guide is time efficiency. If you have an individual person in your office managing several contract writers, it’s very likely that person is spending a lot of time editing the pieces for consistency or to follow the style rules that person is accustomed to using. All that work (and time on the clock) simply because a uniform style guide has never been communicated or even developed.

How do I create an editorial style guide?

The first answer to that question is that you don’t necessarily have to be the creator. Yes, the marketing department (in some companies that’s the owner!) should have a voice in developing the guidelines so that they are complete. But if you don’t have a communications team already in place the guideline development can easily be outsourced to a professional writer or a qualified marketing agency. No matter who creates the document, multiple websites host template editorial style guides that will make the task much easier.

The first step to creating an editorial style guide is to determine what set of rules are your “fall back” source. For example, most newspapers use Associated Press style and many other publications use the Chicago Manual of Style.

It’s then important to note any exceptions to the chosen style guide and to call out specific topics that will be used most often.

Here are some areas to consider for your editorial style guide:

• Punctuation: do you use periods in your times (p.m. vs pm)? Do you use long dashes? Do you use the Oxford comma?

• Tone/voice(s): Will each writer who contributes have their own voice and write in first person or are all blogs and communications written in third person plural? Is the tone serious, friendly, etc.?

• Abbreviations: What style of state abbreviations do you use? What words are commonly abbreviated or never abbreviated? While we’re talking about it, do you use contractions or not?

• Titles: Do you capitalize? Place them before or after the name? Does everyone get their title used? Names of other businesses should always include the way the company itself spells its own name.

• Branding notes: Do you need to make sure that your company name has a trademark symbol? How can it be referred to on references after the first time in a document? How is your organization described?

• People references: It’s usually considered more correct to use “people first language” (person with a disability instead of disabled person, for example). This needs to be clarified. But to further the discussion, do you refer to your customers as customers, clients or something else? What are your employees called?

• Sourcing: What are appropriate research resources and how are they to be cited?

One more note for success with your editorial style guide: Make it available in an online form for your staff and freelance team. This could easily be done through Google Docs so that the document isn’t available to everyone. Providing an online version makes it easier to access and update.

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