A guide to style guides

If you’ve ever found yourself staring at a screen trying to decide if you should use title case for a heading or go with “centre” vs. “center”, you might want to consider a style guide.

Style guides specify how to treat everything from punctuation and spelling to numbers and formatting. They’re great tools for ensuring consistency across your content — and help prevent arguments over optional points of style. (Some people have very strong opinions about serial commas.)

There are lots of readymade style guides you can choose from, such as The Canadian Style, the Chicago Manual of Style and the Associated Press Stylebook. Some organizations create their own style guides specific to their corporate voice, tone and brand, laying out key conventions — for example, “We use contractions to be conversational,” or, “We always use our full company name, never a short form.”

When creating a custom style guide, there a few best practices to keep in mind:

Build on a base
Rather than reinvent the wheel, you could choose an existing published style guide as your foundation and create a lightweight custom add-on to address topics unique to your organization.

Keep it short
The shorter your style guide is, the likelier people will be to use it. Focus on what’s relevant for your organization (e.g., a manufacturer may need detail on how to cite product specs while a mental health organization might emphasize inclusive language). Try to avoid lengthy explanations.

Make it scannable
Include quick reference checklists so team members can scan for key guidelines on terminology, spelling, etc.

Update it
Review your style guide at least every couple of years to stay aligned with how your company and brand are evolving, and as wider best practices (such as web standards) change. Treat it as a living document.