The purpose of a style guide is to keep consistency of tone of voice and linguistic choices in written content. Every news outlet bases its articles either on its own style guide or on public and respected guidelines, such as the Associated Press’s AP Style or the Chicago Manual of Style. Tech companies also follow guidelines for their technical documentation, with notable examples being the Google developer documentation style guide and the Microsoft Style Guide.
One of my responsibilities as Localization Review Coordinator for Google was to help create and maintain the translation style guide for Brazilian Portuguese. This was crucial in keeping translators and reviewers from six different vendor teams aligned and consistent with the Google Voice. Language is fluid, style is subjective, and grammar rules are often optional. It’s impossible for a large team of translators and writers to produce good quality content without a style guide.
But what if you work alone? Is it worth it to put in the extra time and effort to create a style guide just for yourself?
In this article:
- Why use a style guide if you work alone
- Disadvantages of using a public style guide
- Benefits of having your own style guide
- How to create a useful style guide for yourself
- Further reading
Why use a style guide if you work alone
You’re not a team of 5 trying to make it sound like the same person wrote those 15 articles in a week. But that doesn’t mean you can’t lose consistency here and there. (I just spent 30 seconds internally debating whether or not to spell out the numbers here.)
Having a style guide to follow can not only ensure that you keep your writing consistent, it also keeps you from having to make decisions on the spot. Instead of getting stuck on a style question, you’re free to focus on your content. In the words of Christopher Gales and the Splunk documentation team, authors of the technical writing classic The Product is Docs:
“Style guides can save you time so that you don’t have to remember what you decided–or decide all over again each time you run into a question in your writing.”
Disadvantages of using a public style guide
That being said, it’s never a bad idea to base your work off a well-established entity in the industry. The Associated Press’s AP Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style mentioned above are some of the most widely-recognized writing guidelines, and you can never go wrong with them. But that doesn’t mean they’re for everyone. These are some reasons why you may not want to go with a public style guide.
- It doesn’t cater to your specific needs
The instructions in these guides are thorough and very detailed, but they don’t always include the specifics that you need. For example, the technical writing style guides from Google and Microsoft I mentioned above might not work for you if your niche is, say, fashion.
Other than that, they may include way more information and details than you actually need, which makes them hard to reference quickly in your day-to-day work.
- Updates are out of your control
A good style guide is constantly evolving. If this evolution is not going in the direction you want or need, there’s nothing you can do about it. Need to add something that would be extremely helpful to you? Nothing you can do about that, either. Public guides are maintained by the organizations that created them, and you might be able to suggest edits, but they’ll rarely be implemented.
Benefits of having your own style guide
The solution is, of course, to write your own. Although going this route can have its own issues (you do have to write it), I’ve found that having my own style guide is incredibly beneficial to my quality and productivity.
- You can choose your style and preferences
Only you can know your target audience and how you want to be perceived by them. Some public style guidelines can be too formal, others too technical. Creating your own rules is important to communicate and express yourself the way you want: What slang is acceptable, if at all? When to use contractions? When is capitalization too much? You decide.
- Easy reference
Prioritizing the issues you come across most often makes it a lot easier to consult the solution to solve your problem immediately, instead of taking several minutes to find the answer you’re looking for–which might not even be in there at all.
- It’s growth-ready
Having a style guide ready for your content can also come in handy if and when you decide to grow your team or hire help. They’ll thank you for the practical instructions, and you’ll thank yourself for the (hopefully) less time spent reviewing other people’s work. It can also be a helpful tool to share with your clients, as other departments may want to keep their voice consistent with your content.
How to create a useful style guide for yourself
Have you seen the size of the Chicago Manual of Style? How can you even begin putting together a reference like that for yourself? Below is a very condensed overview of how to create a good style guide for yourself. To see more thorough and detailed step-by-step instructions, check out this great guide by Nic Evans from Gather Content.
Define your audience
As with any kind of content production, the first thing to consider is your target audience.
- What’s important to them?
- Who do they trust?
- What are their values?
- How do they speak?
All of this will be important to identify the language your audience speaks, and reflect that in the style of your writing. Are they young and hip? Or do they expect a more traditional tone?
Define your personal brand
Based on your audience’s expectations, it’s time to decide how you’ll interact with and present yourself to them.
- What’s your purpose?
- What do you want to give your audience?
- What makes you unique?
- What do you stand for?
Having defined guidelines will help you communicate that in the way you write.
Choosing what to include and what to exclude
With your audience’s expectations and your intentions in mind, how do you translate that into a set of guidelines? This is where you’ll prioritize the choices that are specific to you and your brand, rather than general, mostly uncontested grammar rules.
- What do you choose to capitalize?
- What kind of punctuation will you use and not use?
- Will you speak in the passive or active voice?
- Will you write in the first person?
To keep your style guide short and easy to reference, it’s important to also know what to keep out. A very lengthy guide with all the minutiae of every rule is a recipe for confusion and often raises more questions than it answers.
- General grammar rules can be referenced from an external source.
- Style choices that don’t make a difference to you or your audience don’t need to be mentioned.
- Don’t try to anticipate every use case for every rule. Think of broader rules that apply to most cases.
Style guide maintenance
Another great advantage of having your own style guide is that it’s all yours to play with. Only you will be able to tell, during your everyday work, in what ways your style guide is helping or hurting you, and make changes accordingly.
However, this can quickly become just another task on your never-ending list, so make sure to devise a system for these updates. One idea is to leave quick comments on your document as you use it. Whenever a question comes up and you can’t find the answer in your style guide, write it down. Then, once a month, take some time to implement the ideas you wrote down.
Sharing a style guide with a large team for years made me understand the necessity of this document even when I’m working alone. I hope this article has inspired you to go out and create a style guide all for yourself.
To learn more, take a look at some of my favorite resources on the subject: