- Marketing & Communications
So, you’ve got a great logo, a color palette, and a couple of typefaces picked out to help define your organization’s brand identity. Maybe you even have a style guide that explains how to put them all together effectively. You’re done, right?
Not so fast!
Logos, colors, and typefaces are just the window dressing for the real star of the branding and marketing show: your words — which is why a writing style guide is essential.
“Content is king,” as Bill Gates once said, and I agree wholeheartedly. Whether it’s emails, reports, plans, proposals, articles, news releases, brochures, website content, or social media posts and ads, writing is an important part of many community and economic development jobs.
If content is king, then most branding experts will likely agree that consistency is queen, both in terms of design and content. A consistent writing style and tone helps you establish your organization’s brand identity, build trust, and differentiate yourself from your competitors. When done correctly, it can improve your visibility and brand recognition in a saturated market.
The biggest obstacle to achieving content consistency is the fact that most companies and organizations have more than one person responsible for writing and/or editing their content. Sometimes we even contract with multiple outside firms. All those content creators have different educational backgrounds, training, and personal styles, so odds are good that they all write a little differently from each other.
This is exactly why developing an organization-wide writing style guide should always be part of your branding and marketing strategy.
Where to Start
There are quite a few established, much loved/loathed (depends on the person) writing guides out there that you can base your company’s writing style around if you choose. Examples include:
- Associated Press Stylebook
- The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage
- The Economist Style Guide
- The Chicago Manual of Style
- Modern Language Association’s Handbook
- Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style
Adopting one of these well-known writing styles and perhaps adding a few organization-specific rules is a fairly common way to approach developing a company/organization’s writing style. But unless you know for a fact that every content creator on your payroll is trained and knowledgeable in your chosen writing style, you better get ready for a whole lot of never-ending copyediting.
You see, not everyone who writes content for your organization is going to be familiar with the style you’ve chosen. And if it’s a big change from what they were taught in school, it won’t come naturally to them and, as I’ve witnessed again and again during my career, it simply won’t be used.
The only way to combat this is to provide in-depth training classes on your adopted writing style to all content creators, which many organizations have neither the time nor resources to provide.
You could also make adherence to your organization’s writing style a condition of employment for certain jobs to help inspire employees to study and learn it on their own, but that may be a step too far — especially in the era of the Great Resignation and the difficulties many employers are having right now filling open positions.
A better solution, in my opinion, is to forgo using one of these established writing styles and simply reinforce the existing English grammar and punctuation rules that most of your staff learned in school. Then, add in some organization-specific guidelines for things not dictated by these rules that your content creators will support and use.
The Collaborative Writing Style Guide
The first thing I did when I started working on Camoin Associates’ writing style guide was to send a survey out to our content creators to find out their writing style preferences around things like capitalization of certain words and titles, use of the Oxford comma, formatting of times and dates, use of contractions and ordinals, and more.
I am now using those survey results — along with additional direction from company leadership where staff opinions may have been split — to develop a Camoin Associates-specific writing guide for our team.
My hope is that taking employee preferences into consideration when creating the guide will succeed where requiring staff to adopt an entirely new, potentially unfamiliar writing style has failed for me in the past.
Plus, it’s a great opportunity to remind folks about the basic grammar and punctuation rules some of us seem to forget over time. (Unnecessary apostrophes and single quotation marks everywhere are my biggest editing pet peeves right now.)
Finally, don’t forget to provide your staff with an orientation to the new writing style guide when it’s complete. You won’t need to provide a lengthy training class if the rules are based on how employees already write, but a quick introduction to the guide and a grammar and punctuation refresher is always a good idea. Then provide that same orientation to each new content creator who comes on board and share the guide with any outside contractors you hire to create content for your organization.
It is also important to review and update your writing guide on a regular basis. The basic grammar rules may not change much over time, but your organization’s writing style very likely will — either with new leadership or in response to larger societal language changes such as the capitalization and use of words like Black and Latinx, and the use of plural pronouns.
- Invite all your content creators to install Grammarly’s free grammar checker app on their computers if that’s allowed by your IT department/person. This tool is incredibly helpful when it comes to applying standard grammar and punctuation rules to writing in real-time. In addition, Grammarly Business offers a customizable dynamic company writing style guide tool to its subscribers that automatically alerts employees to any company-specific writing style errors. Learn more.
- Tri-County Regional Planning Commission in Michigan, which is a client of ours, has one of the best public agency style guides I’ve seen so far. It includes a section on their organization’s writing style. Check it out.
- The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has an incredibly comprehensive branding and writing guide. It’s 72 pages long, but the Writing and Editorial Style sections are only eight of those pages. Check it out.
- Mailchimp’s Content Style Guide is another stand-out. It’s now available to copy/adapt/use under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International license, as well. Check it out.
- Microsoft’s Writing Style Guide includes an alphabetical word list and term collection, plus chapters on accessibility requirements, chatbots, content planning, and more. Check it out.
- Apple’s Style Guide includes an alphabetical guide for style and usage, plus a section on writing inclusively. Check it out.
- Northern Arizona University Editorial Style Guide includes chapters on abbreviations and acronyms, addresses, and more. Check it out.
If you would like to receive a copy of Camoin Associates’ writing style guide PDF after it’s done or are interested in some help developing your own, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Orwell’s Six Elementary Rules of Writing [Translated]
One of the things I love about The Economist Style Guide is the inclusion of writer George Orwell’s six elementary rules of writing from his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language.”
These rules have stood the test of time and remain central to all effective writing, in my opinion. If developing a full writing style guide is too big of a project for your organization to tackle at this time, adopting these rules is an excellent first step!
Note: My own personal translation of each rule are shown in brackets.
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. [Don’t be cliché; be original]
- Never use a long word where a short one will do. [Keep it simple]
- If it is possible to cut out a word, always cut it out. [Keep it short]
- Never use the passive where you can use the active. [Use an active tense/voice]
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent. [Assume your audience doesn’t understand your industry-specific lingo – write plainly without jargon and tons of acronyms]
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous. [It’s OK to break a rule if doing so makes the writing better]
Jilayne Jordan is a communications and public relations professional with more than 25 years of experience working primarily for local and state government agencies in Georgia, Oregon, and Washington state. She came to work for Camoin Associates in January 2022 as their first Graphics and Communications Specialist. She currently provides writing, copyediting, graphic design, website content management, and digital marketing services to the firm and its clients.