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How (and Why) to Build Your Brand’s Stylebook

Thomas Wachtel // March 13, 2018

Every business has processes. There are certain ways to do certain things, and every employee is expected to follow them. This even goes for creatives—when we’re bringing beautiful work to life, we’re not doing it from a completely blank slate every time. We have brand guidelines to follow, like the colors and the logos that belong to a brand.

But when it comes to writing, sometimes we get away from process. People have very different voices, and for more inexperienced writers—who will be a factor particularly if you subscribe to the principles of inbound marketing—it can be hard to adjust. That doesn’t mean everyone gets to just go buckwild on the English language, though. Just like every other part of your business and all your other creative work, there are standards that need to be set and followed.

This is where a brand stylebook comes in. Like your employee handbook and process repository and visual guidelines, your style guide sets a baseline for your team to follow whenever the written word is deployed. And like those other resources, your team could be lost without one.

Why does a business need a stylebook?

There’s a reasonably good chance that this sounds like a waste of time to you. There’s a lot going on in a business, why devote the time and capital to something like this? Well, just think about the reasons you determine and enforce other processes in your business.

Eliminate confusion and mistakes

When every person at a business does tasks differently, things can get very confusing very quickly. This goes for things as simple as naming a file as well as things as complex as rebranding a product. You aren’t looking for your employees to function as clones or robots, but following a specific process helps to keep people on the same page.

Having an established brand stylebook helps do just that. And if you’re an enterprise brand working with several different agencies, a brand stylebook ensures everyone follows the same rules. There aren’t arguments over whether or not a comma gets used in a certain place—you simply check to see what your house style is. Is it spelled “email” or “e-mail”? No arguments, only the style guide. It’s nearly comprehensive, and if a question comes along that it can’t answer, you simply add the researched answer so it doesn’t come up again (we’ll have more on that later).

Your stylebook also helps to prevent silly writing mistakes, particularly for less experienced writers. It’s a detailed resource that doesn’t just cover the nitty-gritty of writing, it also can help with higher concepts that a veteran scribe might have locked down but are foreign to a civilian. Things like run-on sentences and dangling modifiers may be obvious to someone who’s spent a decade thinking only about how words fit together, but if your last English class was twenty years ago, they may be harder to spot. Without your stylebook, of course.

Builds consistency, stability, and quality in your brand

There are some places in your marketing where consistency is a negative—if every advertisement you created was the same, it’d get pretty old pretty quick for your marketing team and prospects alike. But in general, consistency is a virtue. Your brand should stay consistent, your primary design colors shouldn’t change wildly, and yes, the way your brand sounds should remain the same as much as possible.

This goes for the verbal tone of your writing, of course, but also for the nuts and bolts of language. One thing that frustrates a lot of inexperienced writers (and let’s be real, a lot of experienced ones as well) is that there are so many right answers in the English language. Are Oxford commas necessary? Well, your sentence won’t be grammatically incorrect without one, but many people—myself included—would say they’re important. In the end, decisions like this can go one of two ways. Each writer can do whatever they want, or you can set a standard that your brand follows. One leads to anarchy and chaos; the other builds stability and reliability in the way your brand’s writing functions.

Stability and reliability breed quality. That solid foundation gives your writers a safe starting point to grow from to build great work. And, as mentioned above, it helps to clear up simple mistakes, meaning that a great turn of phrase won’t be torpedoed by the use of the wrong form of “it’s” or “their.”

Lowers the barriers of entry

For your major campaigns and your primary marketing efforts, your writers are going to know what they’re doing. You’ll put important work like that in the hands of your most experienced and most talented writers—your senior copywriter, maybe even a creative director if it’s a big enough deal. But everything isn’t a Super Bowl commercial. And particularly for smaller marketing teams and those who produce a lot of content, you may have things that are being written by less experienced authors.

Think about your business’ blog. You’re creating a lot of content on a regular basis, and if you’re doing it right it’s going to be too much for one person to handle. It’s simply not likely that you’re going to have enough expert writers to both fill your schedule and share enough diverse perspectives to make your blog interesting and worthwhile for people to read. You’re going to need to pull from your full team. And for many people, the idea of writing something for public consumption is a frightening one.

But it doesn’t have to be, if you give them the resources to succeed. That includes the strong foundation and safety net that a good stylebook can provide. If you’re not deep in the English language on a day-to-day basis, you’re probably not going to know all of the punctuation and grammatical intricacies that pop up, and dealing with it all can be tough. The stylebook helps your contributors know what to look out for, and how to handle problems and confusing situations as they come up.

In short, your stylebook is a security blanket for people who aren’t as comfortable writing, a tool to expand your roster of possible writers and grow the diversity of perspectives that you can share.

How does a business build a stylebook?

Your stylebook is the foundation of your business’ writing, and as such it’s critically important that it’s built in a very intentional way, not haphazardly. So where do you start? Who should be working on this project? And what happens next?

Find your champion

One of the major benefits of the stylebook is consistency. It establishes how spelling and punctuation are used where conflicts emerge, and ensures that no matter who’s writing, your copy conventions are preserved. But that only works if the stylebook itself is consistent.

A brand stylebook isn’t something that can be done properly by committee. There may be a few people who want to give it a final stamp of approval—like your chief creative director, or some senior copywriters, or maybe even the president or CEO (especially if they’re particularly hands-on or creative, or if it’s a small business). But it needs to be established early on in the process who owns the stylebook, who’s in charge of doing the legwork to research and assemble it. You can’t have a committee arguing over every inch of the book—especially if part of the committee doesn’t know their grammar.

Choose a style champion to lead the charge. It should probably be one of your higher-level copywriters, or if you have a dedicated editor and/or proofreader, hand them the keys. They don’t necessarily have to do 100% of the work, but they do need to be in command and able to make final decisions about matters of style. And they need to know what they’re doing. Don’t hand your style guide off to someone who’s not an expert on the English language.

Build the foundation

Your style champion isn’t expected to start your stylebook from scratch. Honestly, even if they wanted to they wouldn’t be able to—the barest-bones baseline is the English language, and you have to follow its rules. But for matters of style rather than law, it can be helpful to use existing style guides as a foundation.

This doesn’t mean that they can just cross out “Associated Press” on the cover of their stylebook, write the name of your business, and call it a day. The chances are extremely slim that any one existing style guide will perfectly match the needs of your organization. Everything you do won’t work with a newspaper style (like the AP) or the style of an academic paper (like the Chicago Manual of Style). But some things will.

Make sure your style champion researches the pros and cons of different accepted existing stylebooks, reads some things that are written in each style, and sees how they compare to the voice of your brand. If there’s one that matches very closely, it might be possible to make that the primary foundation of your own style guide. But no matter what, it’s likely that some parts of one guide will match what you’re going for more closely than whatever primary source is chosen. Don’t hesitate to allow some mix and matching to build your own unique and appropriate style.

Build as you go

You aren’t going to have 100% of a fully perfect style guide on day one. There’s simply too much to decide, too much to know. Even the famous guides you’re probably using to build your own, like the AP’s book, are constantly updated as new issues come up, as slang and common use change. So your guide also needs to be a living document, ready to shift and change as language does, and as you come across new questions about how you want to do things.

The most important thing is that you need to rely on the foundation you’ve already built to grow your infant style guide. That champion you picked earlier in the process? They should still be in charge of determining how you handle the new questions that come up. As updates to your favorite style guide occur, you should know—and make the time to determine whether or not those updates jive with your brand.

What can you expect to need to be able to react to? A few things. First, and most obviously, you need to always be on the lookout for new inconsistencies that pop up in your written materials. Like I said, you won’t think of everything on day one, so as your team writes more and more, they’re likely to have disagreements over things that aren’t yet covered. Do some research and make a decision about how you’ll handle each case. If your champion is an editor or proofreader—or really in any role in which they’re going to see every piece of written material you produce—they should be in a great position to notice and quash any inconsistencies in an intentional manner.

You will also need to think about things that are unique to your industry, and things that are unique to your business. Every style guide won’t need to have an entry for how you format “white paper,” but ours does. A pharmaceutical company has to worry about the proper way to spell and format names of complex molecules and chemicals, but usually that’s not a concern for me (though if we take on a client in the industry, it becomes my concern!). And if your business has products or services with peculiar names, or if you have other unique phrases or terms like specific job titles, it’s important that everyone knows the consistent and proper spellings and capitalizations.

Make writers’ lives easier

A good stylebook is critical to the success of any project that involves writing. It’s just that simple. It helps your whole writing staff—or, if you work with a variety of agencies, their writing staff—stay on the same page (please excuse the pun), and for each individual writer it makes it much easier to remember all the rules and requirements that go into each thing we write. And, speaking as an editor myself, I can guarantee you that it makes my job significantly easier as well. Your business, if it’s successful, has established processes in place for important tasks. You have guidelines that creatives use to build beautiful visual design pieces. Why shouldn’t your writers have that tool as well?

Build a style guide for your business. Every person who creates content for you will thank you—and honestly, so will the people who read it.