Creating Style Guides: How to Get a Huge Team of Writers on the Same Page



January 22, 2013 (Updated: May 4, 2023)

At CopyPress we know that utilizing a large, educated team is the only way to produce a lot of quality product in a short amount of time. We also know that it isn’t easy.

Clients often want their content products to meet a set of very refined requirements and standards. What they don’t want is a lot of content that feels disconnected, sounds inconsistent, and looks like pieces from separate puzzles.

But producing content that consistently matches each unique requirement and preference, while working with a large team, can be challenging. People interpret directions differently, are often accustomed to working their own way, and frequently don’t read long style guides in their entirety. So getting everyone on the same page requires some strategy.

The only way to hurdle the obstacle of personal options and preference is to create a fault-free style guide that lays out the assignment from start to finish. Here are a few strategies we use for putting together style guides for large-scale productions.

Leave No Concept Undirected

The style guide has to address every element of the content – even the elements that you don’t want in the content. Sometimes it’s better to say not to do something rather than not address it at all.

For example, if writers aren’t supposed to add links or images, tell them. Don’t assume that because you didn’t tell them to add links and images, they won’t. A few concepts that should always be addressed in a style guide include:

  • Title/Headline Directions – length, style, capitalization rules
  • Image Use – number of images, size of images, placement of images, attribution of images
  • Links – sites to link to, sites not to link to, acceptable number of links, acceptable placement of links
  • Font Style – preference on bolding, italicizing, underlining, colors, size, and font type
  • Formatting – number of paragraphs, paragraph size, use of subheadings, size of subheading text
  • Word count – minimum and maximum counts
  • Keywords – number of times a keyword will appear, keyword use in titles and subheadings
  • Attributing Resources – how and where to attribute in the content

Be Specific in a Broad Way

While it is extremely important to address these elements (and more) in the style guide, it’s also important to remember that you don’t want to bombard the writers with a long list of rules and restrictions.

Most writers won’t read a massive style guide. So instead of listing each rule in a row, create separate sections that elaborate on complicated portions of the directions.

Do that by creating a list of basic, key instructions that include short, declarative directions (follow client rules for keyword use, use one image in each article, follow client formatting rules). Then either under each basic direction or in a section below the directions, elaborate on the details for each rule.

This works best because it gives writers a manageable list of directions to follow, as well as additional reference material to use when needed.

Employ Another Set of Eyes

What seems obvious to you as the style guide creator may not be so obvious to the writer. Many times I will write down a set of directions that I think are completely clear and direct. A week later, after my brain has checked out of the details of the assignment, I will reread the directions I wrote and often find myself misunderstanding my own directions.

It is important to write directions and then ask another person, with no previous knowledge of the assignment, to verify the clarity of the instructions. The fresh set of eyes will likely uncover directions that sounded clear in your mind, but ended up sounding confusing.

Do a Test Run with More Than One Writer

It’s always important to do a test run before embarking on a large campaign. At CopyPress we do this because we want to give our clients a taste of the content so they can advise if it needs any restructuring before mass production. But samples are also super important for style guide development.

By assigning a test assignment to two or more writers, you can analyze their product and pinpoint the elements that don’t match and directions that were hard to follow. So if one writer used the brand name five times and another writer didn’t mention the brand name at all, you know that you should add instructions in the style guide that address the use of brand names.

Provide a Sample Piece

This test run works double duty. You can pinpoint problems before the campaigns starts moving on a mass scale, and you are also producing samples that you can now add to the style guide.

Whenever possible, add a sample piece of content to your style guide. Many people are visual learners so lead by a physical example of the content.

This is especially important when putting together content that must follow specific rules for formatting. Content that needs four, 30-word blurbs at the end of the piece may be hard to understand and remember for a writer. But inserting an example that the writer can compare to their final product will make it easier for them to catch their mistakes.

Format with Bullets, Lists, and a Little Bit of Bold

No one likes to read big blocks of text. So don’t pepper your instructions into paragraphs. List the directions in numbered lists. Use bullet points to offer additional explanations. Writers want to quickly reference the style guide so make it easy to scan and locate information.

It may seem like a good idea to bold and underline the important parts of a style guide. It is a good idea, but only when done properly. Don’t over bold or underline. It’s like crying wolf of importance. If you bold something in every step of the process, the writer will start to ignore the formatting.

Only bold and underline aspects of the style guide that are extremely important in order maintain the weight of the eye catching formatting. Or it will simply start to blend in with the rest of the information (and get really annoying).

See what I mean?

Don’t Be Afraid to Be Obsessed with Details

While we would like all writers to read through the entire style guide multiple times, we know that is unlikely. It is more realistic to believe that a writer will read through the style guide once then refer to it as they work. So create a style guide based on this idea; make it manageable.

But in effort to create a manageable, writer-friendly style guide, don’t be afraid to be extremely detailed. By providing a style guide that addresses all details, you will help yourself and the writer.

You are giving writers the information they need to be successful. You can easily answer writer questions by advising them to refer to a certain section of the style guides. And even better, by making sure that ever requirement is listed in the style guide, you can hold writers accountable for their work and prevent pleads of ignorance.

Creating a useful, detailed style guide benefits client, writer and company. What other tips and strategies do you use when creating style guides?

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