A guide to style guides -- How to Keep your content in Fashion
Certain things never go out of style. But when it comes to content, it behooves you to keep an eye (and an ear) open for terminology and language that may be ready for retirement.
Earlier this month, the Associated Press related its updated style guide. For most people, the biggest change will likely be the decision to de-capitalize Internet and Web.
Yes, the constructs formerly known as Internet and Web have now become so ubiquitous that they are just things. No need for special capitalizations; they just are. And that goes for the internet of things too.
So why should you care about the AP Style Guide? Most likely you don't, but for anyone who is tasked with producing content, having a style guide on hand can help to ensure consistency and that your brand is represented with a unified voice.
Some places are one-person shops, so it's easy to get by without a style guide. After all, your style is the style. But what happens when someone else comes along? What if you've got multiple people adding content to your site or managing your social networks? Consistency matters because your voice is a large part of your brand.
And we're not just talking about the web here -- establishing some sort of style guide (or adopting a pre-existing one) can help you ensure that all your content matches up. Your branding efforts, whether they're on-line, in print, on TV, or on radio, should all be similar in style. The tone may change based on the audience, the content can be adjusted, but that foundation of style should be in place to help everyone on your team build towards a common success.
So how do you start implementing a style guide in your business if you don't already have one? It's not as hard as you think.
Find the Foundation
First off, there are plenty of style guides out there. I'm partial to the Canadian Press Style Guide, because that's what I grew up with and that's what's informed my writing. You may prefer the AP version, or classics like The Elements of Style. There are others, so find the one you like.
Then, because chances are you're not a newspaper, feel free to make changes that make sense to you.
Build Your Own Version
Starting with a style guide (and it can also be one that you know from other companies) gives you the foundation upon which your individuality can grow. There may be certain terms and jargon that are specific to your efforts. And while it's always best to stay away from jargon in external writing, there's nothing wrong with setting standards for things like branding and acronyms.
You may want to appeal to regional interests. For example, if you're a Canadian operation, but 90 per cent of your work is south of the 49th, then it might behoove you to create all your content using American spelling.
Right Isn't Always Right
You will find those who insist that dangling participles or ending sentences with a preposition is horrendous grammar and should be avoided at all costs.
But when it comes to writing, right isn't always right.
I firmly believe that the goal of all writing is to ensure that the message gets delivered in the best, most efficient way for the consumer -- not for you or your ego, but for the person who is reading your content. If doing linguistic gymnastics in order to adhere to a rule is going to interrupt the flow of the content, then it's OK to break a few rules.
I generally follow CP Style. I double my consonants before suffixes; I add my u to colour and flavour; I go to a theatre and sit in the centre, but while I may use "ise" in my personal writing, professionally it's all realize and stylize. Why? Because it's more "normal."
I don't want someone saying, "Hey, he spelled normalize" wrong, and getting stuck there. If "proper" spelling (at least as determined Gage's Canadian Dictionary) causes my reader to lose the train of thought, then being "right" is actually the wrong thing to do.
Look, according to the AP, you're no longer using Mason jars for making jam. Instead, the preferred term is "Canning jar."
There are certain items that transcend brand and, though it may pain the die-hard marketers out there, you have to use the terms that your customers are using. As I've said before, you can fight the battle for facial tissue, but pretty much everyone and their uncle calls it Kleenex.
Don't try to force language down people's throats. If you have a branded term or internal language that you'd like to introduce people to, you can do it in a complementary way -- associating it with content through juxtaposed use. But remember that people speak the way they speak -- not necessarily the way you want them to.
Let it Breathe
A solid "individual" style guide doesn't have to be exhaustive. It should serve as a general guideline that allows you to deal with the most common questions. It should also remain a living, breathing document. As new issues come up, you can discuss them as a team and add them to the guide. It can be complemented by branding guides, style and colour requirements, and image guidelines. And all should be reviewed on a fairly regular basis to ensure that you're not stuck in the past with your content, images, and style.