Four Web Writing Style Guides from which to Borrow

Vintage typewriter with a sheet of paper half covered in text loaded in

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a website in possession of a shiny new design, must be in want of good content. Unfortunately, the process of auditing, revising, migrating, and creating quality content can be daunting. This is why it often gets left to the end of a project and then frantically hashed out in last minute skirmishes over what’s “good enough for now.”

The value gained from quality content—to say nothing of an effective content strategy—is well worth the price of engaging seasoned content professionals early on and heeding their advice. Nonetheless, there are a few DIY steps that even small or resource strapped teams can take to ensure that content effectively meets the needs and proclivities of users and business alike. One of these steps is to create a web writing style guide.

Meet the Web Writing Style Guide

A web writing style guide helps content creators and revisers write effectively for the web and in a style that is consistent with an organization’s brand and image. We all know “how to write,” of course, but writing content for the web is different than writing reports, presentations, or email. Writing content for broad consumption in the “voice” of an organization or brand is also not something that most folks tasked with “helping out with the content updates” have much experience with.

A style guide reduces the effort needed to create quality content by bridging these knowledge and experience gaps. Style guides are sometimes framed as “enforcement tools,” but I like to think of them more as a cheat sheets. Once a style guide is created, content creators don’t have to make decisions about case, or voice, or sentence length, or target vocabularies. They can instead focus on creating good content that creates value for their readers by effectively conveying information.

Creating a Style Guide of Your Very Own

Style guides can range in scope from a few printed pages, to scores of sections on a dedicated sub-site. If you’re just starting out in creating a web writing style guide for your organization or project, don’t let the expansiveness of guides on dedicated sites discourage you. Rather, use these as resources from which to borrow parts to create a starting point for the guide your content creators need. From that foundation you can build and fine tune over time—none of the comprehensive guides you see online sprung into existence all at once.

Here are four guides to help you get started:

  • Mailchimp Content Style Guide. Mailchimp’s guide is a feast of writing advice both for the web in general and for channeling Mailchimp’s distinct style. If you borrow material form the latter category, be sure it fits with the voice of your organization. Mailchimp’s guide is definitely on the “comprehensive” end of the spectrum. Mercifully, it also includes an excellent one-page TL;DR.
  • Gov.UK Content Design Guide. The Gov.UK guide provides excellent “web writing in general” resources, as well as journalistic direction for those writing for the UK’s government sites. Short sections with salient subtitles, examples, and bulleted lists make this guide easy to understand—and easy to borrow from.
  • BBC News Style Guide. This BBC guide is less geared toward writing for the web and focuses instead on fostering consistency when there are a lot of authors involved. It does this by providing guidance on capitalization, pluralization, homophones, and preferred spellings. Consistency at this level helps create a coherent “voice” without an overtly branded character (such as one sees with Mailchimp). Most organizations won’t need as much direction as the BBC provides here, but including direction around a few high-impact elements can go a long way to heading off collisions in mechanics and style.
  • US Department of Education. This concise, easily scannable guide covers the most basic elements of writing for readability, findability, and comprehension on the web. It also links out to the sources that support its recommendations. This is an excellent way to position a writing guide as a resource for writers, rather than as a constraint on them.

Bringing It All Together (And One More Example)

How you bring your guide together will depend on the needs and goals of your project and organization. A recent client of mine, for example, wanted a style guide they could easily print out so they didn’t need yet another thing on screen as they were revising content. I created a document informed by our research—and helped out by some of the sources above—that was easily scannable and fit on two double-sided pages. For this project, I also included guidance on the use of targeted keywords, since this was an important element of our redesign process. I’ve posted a lightly scrubbed version of this guide in Google Docs for your perusal (and, of course, borrowing).

Once you have the basics down, you now have a foundation upon which to build. Sarah Richards’s Content Design is an excellent resource for moving your content design process to the next level. Still feeling a bit overwhelmed? Please do drop me a note below; I’d love to hear more about your project and chat about how I can help.

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