Craft a Writing Style Guide for Your Website

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Have you ever heard someone refer to content as “noise”? As in “there’s a lot of noise on the web”? Certain websites are considered “noise” while others have earned praise, likes, retweets and even awards. What makes the difference? Among other factors, a consistent style and tone that make sites a more reputable, credible and reliable source of information.

Creating a style guide for your website will boost the quality of your site’s content. Want onboard? Here are some key elements in creating an effective writing style guide.

AP or Chicago?

There are two camps of style manual: AP Stylebook and Chicago Manual of Style. Both are of equal repute and widely used. In order to save you from reinventing the wheel, it’s wise to buy one or the other of these manuals and include a link to it in your Style Guide. They’re both grammar and style bibles that can provide answers about capitalization, spelling, punctuation, numbering, roman numerals and anything else you can dream of.

The Exceptions to the Rules

While the AP and Chicago manuals provide a thorough reference for the nitty-gritty of grammar and style, you’ll probably have some specific requirements that you’ll want to include.

For example which will you use: The United States of America, the United States, the US, USA, U.S.A.? What other abbreviations are acceptable: OK, O.K. or okay? Will you use hyphens or avoid them like a plague:

  • re-invent or reinvent?
  • re-word or reword?
  • over-technical or overly technical?
  • under-whelmed or underwhelmed?

When coming up with this list, take the following into consideration:

  • Consider how each of these choices reflects your brand. Is a more formal or more casual approach appropriate?
  • Don’t make the list as long as your chosen style guide. Narrow in on a few target areas so that writers and editors will have a chance to memorize them.

International brands

International brands have the challenge of catering to both British English and American English speakers. Besides the many differences in spelling:

Programme vs program

Centre vs center

Honour vs honor

Cancelled vs canceled

Criticise vs criticize

Grey vs gray

There are also times when the actual vocabulary and not just the spelling are different:

WC vs bathroom

CV vs resume

Trainers vs sneakers

Trousers vs pants

If you have an international company then you’ll want to make sure your style guide reflects these differences. Keep in mind that most Europeans are more familiar with British English than American English. Create a separate style guide for writers on each continent.

What is the tone?

Besides spelling and grammar, the style guide should also reflect the tone you’e creating with your content. A political website can be humorous or serious. An educational site can be formal or conversational. What’s the personality of your site? What kind of expectation do you have of your content writers in terms of voice, quality and style? Make sure to include this in your style guide.

Are you aiming for simplicity so that the average layperson can understand your content? Or are you cultivating an exclusive site that caters to more sophisticated clients? You may want to consider including some examples of Do’s and Don’ts and pieces that reflect the style you want.

Referencing sources

Most sites use outside sources for their content. It’s important to establish rules on how to properly cite sources to avoid problems such as plagiarism and damage to your site’s reputation. What kind of citing will your site use:

  • Provide a signal that a thought or quote was referenced from somewhere else and show where it was referenced from at the end of the post.
  • Imbed the reference links within the text so that readers can click to access the external source.
  • References section. Provide a list of sources used at the end of the post.

The referencing style you choose says a lot about your site. For example, you wouldn’t expect a fashion blog to include footnotes. But an academic website would. Hyperlinks, on the other hand, are convenient and can be used across all genres. A references section is a popular choice for a variety of websites as well. Choose which one(s) you think most fit with your site’s tone and include detailed instructions on how and when to cite sources in your style guide.

What’s on your Blacklist?

There may be some sites that you don’t want to include for a variety of reasons:

  • They’re your direct competition so you don’t want to plug their business by referring your users to them.
  • The site is inflammatory or controversial – sites that have a political or social agenda or promote hate crimes and hate speech.
  • The site is not a credible source of information – some websites don’t count Wikipedia to be a credible source and want their writers to dig deeper to find posts written by experts

Whatever the reason, you’ll want to make a list of forbidden references as comprehensive as possible. The list of sources on your “Blacklist” should be made available to your content writers and editors.

Examples to follow:

  • HubSpot, a style guide pro, has a free style guide e-book where they share the secrets of their style guide and provide a template for you to develop yours.
  • MailChimp is also at the top of the list for applying their style guide norms across all areas of their site from the content to the terms and conditions section. Here they offer their style wisdom so that you can adapt it to your own site.
  • Kapost also antes up a style guide template for you to mold to your site’s liking.

A writing style guide is an essential element to boosting your website’s quality. Make sure to get writer buy-in by sharing it with your content writers and editors, asking for feedback and updating every now and again to reflect new trends and ideas.


Marry McAleavey is a passionate blogger and content manager at The Essay Service. She enjoys reading and loves to help others with expressing their ideas.

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