Tips for Creating a Writing Style Guide

Articles. Emails. Blog posts. Professional bios. Sales sheets. Client communications. E-books. The list goes on.

Written content—in its countless forms—is a critical way firms communicate with clients and prospects. And if your firm is like ours, you likely rely on your practice professionals to some degree to help develop content that can be shared with external audiences.

When you have content coming in from a variety of individuals, it can be a challenge to manage the varied writing styles and edit everything to ensure one consistent voice and message.

Cue the writing style guide. A writing style guide helps set guidelines that can be applied to internal and external communications. This consistent approach helps to create a standard of excellence and professionalism in all of your published content.

The writing style guide also saves times by answering frequently asked questions like, “Do we use ‘not-for-profit’ or ‘nonprofit’?” or “When should I spell out an abbreviation?”

While it is ultimately up to the marketing team to review, edit and approve content before it is published, a writing style guide can help reduce the amount of time you spend on the editing process.

Here are a few tips when creating a writing style guide:

1. Jot it Down

Before our team began to put together a formal guide, we simply jotted down tips that we wished our writers knew. When you are editing content, make a separate list of the common errors, corrections, or suggestions you make. These will help mold the writing style guide by answering those frequently asked questions. Often these different “styles” are simply just a number of small tweaks that ultimately create consistent communications that look and sound like one firm.

2. Make it Short and Sweet

This rule applies not only to your professional writing, but also to your writing style guide. Just as clients and prospects want information that is presented in a clear and digestible format, your team members need a style guide that is quick to reference and easy to understand.

3. Cover Your Bases

Go back to your jotted down notes (see #1 above) and start there. Typically, you’ll notice a pattern of tips that you’ll want to set guidelines around. Here are the things that are typically included in writing style guides, but again make sure to adapt it to your content:

  • Commonly used terms – These are commonly used niche and industry terms where you see inconsistencies. There is typically a lot of gray area with these terms, so pick one and stick with it. For example, at our firm we refer to “cybersecurity” (one word) rather than “cyber security” (two words).
  • Grammar – This one might seem obvious but include some common grammar errors that keep coming across your desk. It also helps to pick a formal style book (i.e. AP Stylebook, The Chicago Manual of Style, etc.) in case your team needs more guidelines.
  • Punctuation and symbols – Include guidelines on commas, slashes, “&” versus “and”, numbers, money, percent and time of day. These are frequently used in content and it helps to have clear rules on how to use these.
  • Company name – Include the appropriate use for your company name for both internal and external communications. Let writers know when it is ok to use company abbreviations. List out appropriate use of department/team names and include any specific communication rules regarding your brand.
  • Acronyms/jargon – Give writers examples of industry acronyms and jargon and when it may be best to spell things out.
  • Unapproved terms – Make sure to include unapproved terms that could send the State Board of CPAs or other regulatory bodies calling. For example, one of our unapproved terms is “expert” unless we are referring to expert witness testimony. Explaining where the regulations come from will go a long way and show that you have reason to prohibit these “unapproved” terms.
  • Voice and Tone – Is your firm typically more casual or buttoned up? Help writers understand your firm’s voice and tone. Think about what you want your readers to portray: formal, experienced, witty, approachable, helpful?

4. Show Examples

Show examples throughout your writing style guide. These will help solidify the guidelines and give your writers working examples of how to apply the rules.

Example:

Incorrect: P & N’s cyber security experts are familiar with FISMA, NIST, HIPAA, and more.

Correct: P&N’s cybersecurity professionals are familiar with numerous security frameworks, including the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA), National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), among others.

 

By creating a writing style guide tailored to your firm, you’ll be on the path to a unified voice and consistent communications and branding (and will hopefully save time editing along the way).

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