What goes in a copy style guide?

A copy style guide doesn't need to be this complicated.Every set of brand standards should include a copy style guide to keep your writing team on track. Just as you define rules for how logos and other visual elements should be used, a style guide will help your writer(s) present your brand in the proper way.

A good copy style guide is especially useful if you’re working with multiple writers. It encourages a consistent “voice” that supports your brand strategy even if you have more work than one writer can handle.

But even if you only have one writer, it’s still a good idea to have clear standards. Freelancers and in-house writers who work on multiple brands will find it easier to stay on target. A guide helps maintain consistency over time, especially if there’s a lag between projects. Your guide will also make it simpler to bring new writers up to speed if you need to add or replace a team member.

Here are six tips for creating a great copy style guide:

Know your audience

Before you define anything else, create at least one audience persona that represents your target readers. Give this person a name, a photo, and a story that makes them seem real. If you have multiple audience segments, create a different persona for each one.

Define your style

The “voice” of your brand should complement its look by using a matching style and tone. If your logo is colorful and playful, you don’t want copy that’s stuffy and formal. A good voice should be distinctive enough that buyers will know it’s you even if they can’t see the logo. (Check out these five tips for creating an authentic voice.)

Show AND tell

Don’t just describe the type of writing you want. Back up your guidelines with specific samples. Most copy style guides include several examples of good writing that match the desired voice. Some guides also show copy that doesn’t fit the style, often followed by corrected versions. This “do this/not that” approach is especially useful when updating an existing copy strategy.

Document your quirks

Clearly spell out any style or grammar practices specific to your brand. One popular toy brand I’ve written for has a two-word name that can never be broken up by a line, column, or page break. Your writers will need to know how to deal with conflicts if your brand deviates from common grammar practices. (Should “eBay” or “iPhone” be capitalized at the beginning of a sentence?)

Depending on your brand, you might also list specific words to use (or not to use). This works best as part of a positioning strategy. For example, your brand may want to define everything it sells as “solutions” instead of “products,” or avoid terms that have strong associations with a competitor. Your guide probably isn’t the best place for SEO keyword lists, which need to be flexible enough to respond to changing market conditions and strategies.

Know your backup plan

Your guide can’t cover everything, and shouldn’t try. Instead, wrap up your playbook by designating a broader style guide as your go-to source for grammar and other style questions. Some of the most commonly used by marketing people include:

  • The Chicago Manual of Style. Published since 1906, Chicago is one of the most respected style guides used in the US. If you’re a professional editor or come from a publishing background this is probably your bible — and it’s almost as thick. It covers several different style formats and is great for squishing spiders too. Thankfully there’s also a searchable online version.
  • The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law (usually called the “AP Stylebook”) is designed for professional journalists. It includes guidelines for writing about major organizations and brands. You’ll also find useful comparisons of similar words, such as when to use “it’s” instead of “its”. AP is updated every year to stay current with changes to language, usage, and law.
  • The Business Style Handbook is specifically for people who write on the job (as opposed to journalists), based on surveys of communications executives at Fortune 500 companies. It was last revised in 2012 to add best practices for online communication.

Keep your copy style guide current

Market trends, customer needs, legislation, and even the language itself are all moving targets. Effective marketing teams review their copy style guides at least once a year, adjusting as needed to keep their messaging on target.

You’ll also want to update your guide any time your own brand objectives change. One of my clients recently realized most of their buyers were outside their target age demographic. Part of their response was to create a completely new style guide to shift their marketing focus.

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