An in-house style guide can take your life from VCR to VCR+. Despite its imposing name, creating and implementing an in-house style guide is a simple process.
First, go inside your house. A dog or chicken house will also work in a pinch. Next, put on the most fashionable thing you own. Even better: Put on many of the most fashionable things you own. Then, walk back outside and sashay down the sidewalk (bonus points if you drag a leash without an animal attached). Finally, record your neighbors’ reactions in real time and post them on social media for posterity.
If you prefer more specific and factual instructions, here are six quick tips on how to nail down a comprehensive and practical in-house style guide.
1. Consider Your Audience. Your guidelines should be based on your brand voice, product or service, industry, and target demographic. The diction (level of formality or informality) in your language and the cut of your grammatical jib should be intentional, regardless of whether your desired tone is conversational or presidential. Keep the big picture of your company message and the aspects of style that will convey it, as well as things that are inconsequential. A law firm may care deeply about serial commas since legal cases have risen and fallen based on their use/absence. A marketing firm may want flexible punctuation in their client-facing materials to achieve a relatable style. A university may use certain acronyms and capitalize college-related terms to support their student culture. A blog writer may not care a whit about consistency between documents but be stringent about paragraph length for readability.
2. Cover the Basics. If you find yourself staring aimlessly out the window as you try to list style elements, start at the bottom of the barrel—spelling, punctuation, numbers, capitalization, formatting, etc. Once you have these listed with basic instructions, add examples for each. The list you create can also serve as your working table of contents.
3. Use Knock-offs. Why rack your brain when somebody else has done the work for you? The bonified folks at AP, AMA, the Chicago Manual of Style, and so on are happy to let you peek over their shoulders and steal their thunder. If you find a notable (or even obscure) style guide that covers your bases in reliable fashion, use it! It may be easiest to adhere to a style guide in a general sense with outlined exceptions. Or you can use a mainstream style guide but allow flexibility based on consistency of a specific quirk or document type.
4. Be Thorough but Brief. You may remember our prior blog post about style guide usage. As an addendum to that: The best style guides are short. They lay a tidy but short blanket over the important stuff, like grammatical mini-skirts. The biggest problem with extensive style guides is the difficulty in finding information. This also means the capacity for people to familiarize, (eventually) memorize, and thereby fully utilize your style guide is unlikely or impossible.
5. Use Common Sense. While everyone in your office may call em dashes “long line breaks,” few people in the proofreading world can relate. While it may be fun to hide the section about date formats at the end of an obscure appendix, some people may not appreciate the humor. As helpful as repetition can be, creating multiple, contradictory entries about capitalization of trademarked terms will defeat the purpose. If a person off the street could use your style guide without help, you’re doing great. If a Ph.D. candidate would need a fine-toothed comb, magnifying glass, and 300 milligrams of caffeine to interpret it, see the next step.
6. Revise, Refresh, Repeat. As you continue to refine your writing craft and communication style, make any necessary updates. As people give feedback on the style guide or convey feedback from clients/outside sources, refresh the content, adding and removing sections. While some aspects are likely to remain unchanged, others will morph and develop over time. As long as you keep users apprised of these changes, the updates will only serve to strengthen your collective voice, streamline your communication, and clarify your messaging.
Still a little lost? If you’re overwhelmed by the task of creating your style guide, no worries! We made a FREE, downloadable E-book, “How to Develop Your In-House Style Guide,” with step-by-step instructions.
Visit our Resources section for more downloadable guides to help you become a better, more confident writer.
And whenever you need proofreading or copyediting help, from mass emails to pitch decks to proposals to research papers to blog posts to contracts to press releases to marketing promotions and so on, we’re here.