Style, tone & voice guides

Content Design & Creation

Style, tone & voice guides

Making copy and content sing like a beautifully orchestrated choir is much easier if everyone sings from the same hymn book. That’s where a style guide, or style manual, comes in.

A style guide is the hymn book from which all contributors to a website or publication – the designers, the copywriters, the content designers, the UX leads and even the product managers and marketing people – can refer to and make sure the copy, brand, layout or even just the ‘tone’ is on brand and sings for the user.

(Others have different names for style guides such as publishing guidelines, copy deck, house guide, brand guidelines, style guidelines, house rules … whatever! Essentially a style guide is the documentation of rules behind a content strategy. It’s really important to make sure people understand what it is and how to use it.)

A style guide is the rule book for publishing, copywriting and even bringing branding to life on a website. It’s a living document that someone – usually the content lead – constantly updates as new copy conundrums come up. For example, should Style Guide be written in title case or in regular case, as in ‘style guide’. These are the types of issues a style guide will resolve for you.

In my opinion, one of the very best style guides – which uses British style (which we Aussies lean towards over American style) – is The Guardian and Observer’s style guide. Its heading is a quote from Aristotle explaining that “style to be good must be clear. Clearness is secured by using words that are current and ordinary.” So basic. So true. And that’s what a style guide is all about: explaining how to best express things for your users.

You can click through to each letter of the alphabet to see what the word gurus have decided so you do not have to argue with each other over it. At most of the websites I have worked at, I have had to create my own style guide but have used the Guardian and Observer style guide as the default and documented only specific things that are relevant to each website.

Copy Deck

Newspapers with heritage and a great history of wordsmiths have already fought all the crazy copy battles that may come your way, so their style guides are a great resource for other content strategists and designers to mine.

A PDF of the BBC style guide is available at this link, and is a brilliant how-to for any copywriter.

Plenty of big digital brands invest the time to maintain awesome style guides. Take a look at Mailchimp’s style guide, which outlines the best way to use words, grammar, tone and voice to bring to life Mailchimp’s content.

Copy guidelines

Web browser Mozilla also has a live style guide with a separate section for specific copy rules.

Copy guidelinesNewspapers ‘house style’ has always been strong and incredibly detailed. How do you write the number 10 – is it ten, 10 or in Roman numberals, X? The style guide should resolve all these little conflicts that slow things down for your reader, creators and generally make content design more laborious than it needs to be.

Basically, any business or brand website interested in building an audience should have a style guide outlining the copy style, tone and voice to be used on the website. These guidelines ensure copy and content on websites, brochures, press releases and publications is consistent, on-brand and crystal clear.

Style guidelines are the spine of a great content strategy. Style guidelines typically refer to the things that make your copy and content uniquely yours – in some cases, they refer to graphic and branding guidelines and in others they simply outline very basic ‘rules’ for the website.

5 steps to start a style guide before it gets too hard

When I edited Kidspot, we made the mistake of not implementing a style guide soon enough. Before we knew it we had inconsistent references all over the place. We tried to patch it up with these short and sharp guidelines below, but eventually I had to assign a staff member to start a living document that all team members could access at any time to check up the details. It took months … but if we’d started something basic at the beginning, it wouldn’t have taken any time at all. The style guide should have just grown as the website grew.

  1. To start with, simply select a published reference to be your “go-to” copy guide. It could be the AP Style Book, The Yahoo Style Book (I love this) but ideally it’s online and always available to anyone at any time, which means the Guardian and Observer Style Guide is now my default of choice.
  2. Send an email to all staff or collaborators proclaiming that X is your style bible and please refer to it for the correct spelling and phrasing and expression of numerals. If anyone has any queries, get them to email you. Make sure this email goes to EVERYONE, put it on your staff intranet, roll it in glitter and make everyone pay attention.
  3. Start your very own “living” document. I love Gdocs because they are so easy to share and collaborate with. You can also use a Confluence page or simply task one person with updating a document that’s always accessible from Dropbox or something similar. Title it “Style Guide” and make sure the whole world knows that this thing exists and they know where to find it.
  4. Create some basic how-to outlines (you can steal from the basic Kidspot guidelines below or build out your own as they come up). Think about things like how the brand name is written, what ‘tone’ you take with consumers and customers and how you want people to ‘feel’ after reading or using your website or content.
  5. Make sure the document is regularly updated as you discover that no-one really knows how to spell Halloween – it is Hallowe’en, All Hallowes Eve or plain old halloween with no capitals? You will regularly come across stuff that needs to be clarified and if you go to the effort of having to clarify it once, then write it down for reference in the future so no-one else has to waste time doing it.

EASY WAYS TO MAKE KIDSPOT COPY GREAT:

  • Show the reader we know her (does the headline surprise, delight or inform her about something she feels compelled to click through to). Offer her friendly, conversational sub-headings using at least one search term a mum might have used to google the article.
  • Make the tone of the copy more “mum whose been there” than “expert mum telling you what to do”.
  • The copy should always be authoritative and accurate but also have a human voice behind it – dropping in an anecdote or conversational style should be encouraged, even in a factual piece.
  • Link to as many of our previous or related articles as possible. In some cases we might even be able to do 10 links.
  • The article title must blend at least one keyword but ALSO deliver a promise of discovery (numbers definitely seem to be loved by Google)
  • We should always make sure the article appeals to any mum, rich or poor, with any aged kids. When we get specific about toddler, baby, school etc, it has to be an extra strong story. Always err on the side of appealing to more, not less, people.
  • Strive for new, but also timeless. We know that daily news has currency, but it’s important our content articles are timeless and can be promoted and re-used again and again to live a life of indexing by Google.

(this would now be redundant, as Kidspot has followed News Corp house style since it was merged in to the main business)

GENERAL RULES

  • ELLIPSES: Please put a space on either side of ellipses (e.g. “The end … is near.”).
  • ITALICS: Italicise titles of books, magazines, publications, films, songs, albums, works of art and exhibitions.
  • GENDER: do not use “he/she”, “it” or “its”; use “he” OR “she” in the whole of the article. Only use “they’re” if referring to the plural – kids, children, babies.
  • JOB TITLES: If the title is written just before the name of the person, it is initially capped, (e.g. “Prime Minister Julia Gillard”). After this, if the person is referred to again as their title, it is all lower case (e.g. “The prime minister flew to Canberra for the opening of parliament.”;
  • SEASONS: The seasons are lower-cased: spring, summer, autumn, winter; unless you address them directly (e.g. “Oh Autumn, how I love your colourful leaves.”)
  • DATES: Number first, month, comma and year (e.g. 31 October, 2013).
  • WEBLINKS: Please double check that all of your weblinks are correct. Any link that takes the reader off the Kidspot website needs to open in a new window.

NAMES

  • We use first names or professional titles in features after the full name is used. For example, “Dr Alan Parker” is then referred to “Dr Parker”; “Kerri-Anne Kennerley” is then referred to as “Kerri-Anne”. Use of the first name is to give the impression of a personal chat with the subject.
  • Name abbreviations must use full stops (e.g. C.W. Stoneking; C.S. Lewis)..
  • “Mum” and “Dad” are only uppercase if it is used in place of a name (e.g. “Mum, are we there yet?”). Most cases require lowercase (e.g. “If your dad was the kind of dad that played sport with you…”)

NUMBERS

  • Spell out one to nine, but use numerals after 10. Exception only in recipes, where numbers are always numerals (e.g. “Pan fry for 2-3 minutes”; “Use 2 pastry sheets”).
  • Not 1970s, but ’70s
  • Not “He was in his 80s.” Instead, spell it out – “He was in his eighties.”
  • 24-7 as numerals only, not spelled out.
  • Use hyphens when describing age (e.g. Jessica was 16-and-a-half when she sailed solo around the world.).
  • He was a 50-something CEO and he was an alcoholic. (Use hyphen)
  • Use numerals and lower case when referring to the century (e.g. 9th century, 16th century, 20th century).
  • Commas in numbers: 1000 and 9000 (no commas required); 10,000 or 99,000 or 123,000 (with commas).
  • kg (not kilos), e.g. 65kg; unless in a quote (e.g. “I lost 20 kilos!”)
  • Measurements: 20cm, 10kg, 300g (no space in between number and measurement).
  • Spell out with hyphen in copy: two-thirds, half, three-quarters (e.g. “one-third of the class were male”) BUT in measurements use numerals (e.g. 2/3 cup water).

UPPER CASE

  • Websites (e.g. True Wife Confessions) and ship names (e.g. Ella’s Pink Lady), albums (e.g. Left Of The Middle), school levels (e.g. Year Nine) and brand names (e.g. Officeworks, Vegemite, Gladwrap, M&Ms – NOT upper case in song titles (e.g. Kookaburra sits on the old gumtree).
  • Don’t use ALL CAPS in subheads
  • “Mum” and “Dad” are only uppercase if it is used in place of a name (e.g. “Mum, are we there yet?”). Most cases require lowercase (e.g. “If your dad was the kind of dad that played sport with you…”).

SPECIAL OCCASSIONS

ANZAC Day

April Fools Day (no apostrophe)

Australia Day

Chinese New Year

Christmas Day/Eve

Easter Bunny, the (unless ‘an Easter bunny’)      

Father’s Day

Good Friday

Halloween

Mother’s Day

New Year’s Day

Santa

St Patrick’s Day

Valentine’s Day

GENERAL

  • A-Z (w/SEO preference)
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Appetiser
  • April Fools’ Day
  • BAND-AID (it is a brand name, the generic term is “sticking plaster” or “adhesive bandage”)
  • barbecue (not barbeque. If space is tight in headline, you can use BBQ.)
  • Blu Tack
  • Bolognese
  • Bottle fed BUT bottle-fed babies
  • Breast milk
  • camembert (lower case)
  • caster sugar (not castor sugar)
  • Celsius (if spelling full word)
  • char grill
  • check-up, check-ups
  • chickenpox
  • childcare (as in centre)
  • co-sleeping
  • couscous (one word)
  • C-section
  • caesarean
  • cow’s milk
  • day care (not daycare)
  • diarrhoea
  • dollhouse
  • doughnut
  • Down syndrome, not Down’s
  • encyclopedia
  • e.g. (with two full stops. Not eg.)
  • etc. (include full stop; etc., is an abbreviation of etcetera)
  • feta
  • fettucini
  • frittatas
  • haemorrhoids
  • hayfever
  • hummus
  • hydrolysed
  • ice cream (not ice-cream or icecream)
  • instalment
  • internet
  • lasagne
  • licorice
  • lollipop (not lollypop)
  • low-fat (with hyphen)
  • mama
  • moisturiser
  • nana (one n)
  • OK (capitalised, not okay, ok or O.K)
  • omega-3 fatty acids
  • pediatrician
  • percent (not % or per cent)
  • pine nuts (two words)
  • playdate
  • play dough (not playdough)
  • plughole
  • postnatal depression
  • pre-eclampsia
  • roly poly
  • Sebago potaoes
  • Self-esteem
  • self-raising flour (hyphen)
  • skin cancer
  • smartphone
  • smokey
  • springform pan
  • stir-fry
  • T-shirts (capital T)
  • veggie
  • wellbeing (one word)
  • wifi
  • workout (one word, as noun and verb)
  • yoghurt (not yogurt)
  • Ziploc bag
  • zucchini

RECIPES

  • Numbers are always numerals (e.g. “Pan fry for 2-3 minutes”, “Use 2 pastry sheets”).
  • Always use two temperatures for ovens – fan-forced ovens are 20°C less than conventional oven temp directives (e.g. “Preheat oven to 200°C (180°C fan-forced).”).
  • Measurements: 2   tbsp. (tablespoon), 1   tsp. (teaspoon)
  • Lower case all ingredients in list (e.g. “juice of lemon”).
  • Fractions are in numerals if they’re measurements (e.g. “1/3 cup flour”, BUT spelled out in method (e.g. “mix in one-third of the liquid at a time”).
  • Recipe names are capped only on the first letter of the first word (e.g. “Hoisin chicken” or “Lemon meringue pie”). This includes using the recipe name in the context of an article (e.g. “For a quick and easy option, try our Stir-fry chicken noodle recipe.”).
  • Ingredients are to be listed in order of their appearance in the recipe method.
  • Each recipe must also include 3-4 notes in bullet point form, including the source of the recipe (e,g. “This recipe was created by Alana House for Kidspot, Australia’s bestrecipe finder. You can follow Alana at Housegoeshome and on ”).
  • Please use ml (millilitres) for wet measurements and cups for dry measurements
  • It’s OK to add weight measurements, but these need to be in brackets (e.g. 1 cup (225g) sugar).
  • Specify how big a can, tin or packet is (e.g. 375ml can tomatoes; 500g pkt of Arnott’s Tiny Teddies).
  • Please specify the SIZE of the baking dish that is required (e.g. 17cm x 8cm loaf pan or 29cm round cake pan
  • When cooking on the stove top, please specify the temperature (e.g. cook over medium heat, fry over high heat, simmer on low heat.).
  • Please specify what kind of sugar you are using in your recipe: caster sugar, brown sugar, raw sugar, etc.
  • When writing instructions, it’s helpful to give times and an alternative to that time as stoves and ovens all work differently. (e.g. stir-fry for 3 min or until onions are translucent; bake biscuits for 20min or until golden brown; bake cake for 50min or until skewer comes out clean when inserted in highest part of the cake.).
  • Please also do try to read over your recipe as if you’ve never cooked it before (I know this is hard when you know the recipe off by heart!) –the more explicit you are with instructions the better as it may the first time someone has cooked this kind of recipe.
  • Please double check that all of your weblinks are correct. Please note that any link that takes the reader off the Kidspot website needs to open in a new window.

 How we worked style at Pureprofile

As a digital-first software as a service business, Pureprofile had already invested in BEAUTIFUL guidelines before I began my role. Unfortunately, they weren’t detailed enough to always be the reference, but they gave us a good anchor point to build from.

Uberbrand compiled these brand guidelines, and later updated with an additional design style guideline booklet to make sure everything looked and read as uniform and built Pureprofile’s brand as people engaged with the site.

Pureprofile copy deck