Monday, 27 June 2011

Site-wide consistency: why you need a style guide

Why every organisation needs a style guide
Most large organisations have a style guide but small outfits can benefit from them too. A style guide can help you set professional standards for the written word, describing what style of language and what tone of voice to use.

You can choose whether to sound friendly or formal, funky or conservative - or whatever your values are. And the tone of voice will dictate what style of language you use.

So what goes in a style guide?
Style guides tell you how to write for the web. They get down to the gritty detail of how many words to have in a sentence (15 to 20 words, says the Plain English Campaign). Or 15 to 30 words on the BBC News site.

Style guides tell you whether to write 'do not' or 'don't' ('don't' is more friendly). They tell you whether to use upper or lower case for job titles: Senior Marketing Manager or senior marketing manager - lower case is easier to read.

And much more too: style guides typically have an A to Z of spellings and hints on grammar and punctuation to help everyone raise their game.

Your content will look and feel more professional, more consistent if all authors and editors work to the same rules.  

Maximum character counts
A good web style guide gives a content editor everything they need to produce a web page. It should include things like the maximum character count for the metadata summary and browser title.

Ideally, it should contain examples of headings, browser titles, link text, alt text, metadata summaries and captions for images and videos. And it should give guidance on whether to put links in the middle of sentences or at the bottom in a separate section.

To wiki or not to wiki?
Wikis are a great way of letting everyone contribute opinions to a style guide or letting many people see the answer to one particular style question.

But once your organisation's decided on a tone of voice and style of language, it's best to create a finished document. It doesn't have to be War and Peace, you could start small, with just a couple of pages. You will need to add to it over time, so it's best to give it a version number and review the document regularly.

Sample style guides
Feeling inspired to put together a style guide? Take a look at the BBC News style guide or the Guardian's style guide.

Some style guides, such as the Plain English Campaign's guide tell you how to write for everyone in the UK, including the one in six people who struggle with reading and writing (figures from the National Literacy Trust). 

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