Style Guide: how to write one?

9 December 2016

[Editor’s note: Soapbox provides a range of editorial services, including copyediting and proofreading, writing for print and web, text for infographics and data visualisations, animation and film scripts, and any other text-based work that might be needed. For more information about our editorial work please see This resource has been prepared by Ian Blenkinsop.]

A style guide helps your organisation use a consistent voice – and you should seriously consider creating one

All think tanks need a style guide: Here’s how to write yours

If you work in a policy, research or advocacy organisation, consistency is at the heart of your brand. You wouldn’t want your key messages to change from week to week, your logo to be used in the wrong colours, or all of your marketing materials to use different fonts. The same applies to all the text that has your organisation’s name on it.

An editorial style guide is a resource for your writers and editors, or anyone producing text for you. Put simply, it’s a reference document (just like brand guidelines or design guidelines) containing decisions on points of literary style, spelling, grammar and semantics.

If the style guide is well written, and properly used, it can help to convey your message and your personality to your audience, and make all your written outputs consistent.

What’s in a style guide?

Style guides can be anything from a single page to an entire book. But for most organisations, a guide between 2 and 10 pages will usually cover the key points. There are four elements to a basic style guide:

  1. Style, tone and audience. An introduction that outlines how the organisation wants to be perceived through its written materials, including an overview of tone of voice, style of writing, principal audience/s etc.
  • What is the tone you want to strike, and who is the audience you’re trying to speak to?
  • Are you a serious, academic institution – sober and rigorous?
  • Are you a campaigning organisation – urgent and direct?
  • Are you writing for policymakers or the general public?
  • Are you all about building an evidence base, or ‘calls to action’?
  • Is English your audience’s first language? Or do you need to write in simpler, clearer language for an international readership?
  1. A fall-back reference work and point of contact. You should always specify a point of reference for all questions of style that aren’t addressed in your style guide.
  • For example, the Oxford English Dictionary, the Guardian style guide, or the Chicago Manual of Style.
  • It’s also a good idea to give the contact details of a person or department in your organisation to whom writers/editors can address any queries.
  1. Style points. The guide should specify common points of literary style. This could include things like:
  • Overall language and style: UK or US English?
  • -ise endings or -ize endings?
  • Numbers: ten or 10? 1000, or 1,000, or 1 000
  • Referencing system: Which system of footnotes/endnotes etc should writers use? It’s often a good idea to provide common examples.
  • Dates: 15th February or 15 February?
  • Acronyms: NATO, N.A.T.O., or Nato?
  • Punctuation: Do you give a proverbial about the Oxford comma?
  • Titles of books, reports, films etc: Italics? Title Case?
  • Formatting: When to use bold and italics, when to Capitalise etc.
    These are just some examples: there could be many other things you might want to include, and it’s important to think of style issues that occur regularly in your particular organisation.
  1. A word list. Commonly used words and phrases should be spelled and formatted the same every time they’re used. The word list is the place to keep all these decisions. Again, think about words and phrases that are particularly common in your organisation’s outputs – especially if they’re often incorrect!

You might choose to add any number of more specific sections to these – for example, guidelines on writing for your website, or for a particular series of research papers, sections on referencing systems, or on how to format a typescript for typesetting. These could even become separate guides if necessary, to keep your ‘core’ style guide concise.

The possibilities are endless, and style guides have a habit of growing… and growing… as more decisions are made and issues addressed. Try to keep it to a reasonable size, to make sure it’s user friendly.

The main thing to remember about style guides is – consistent voice, consistent quality.