Here is a list of ten example topics you may want to include in your organization’s house style guide.
If you’re new to house style guides, be sure to check out my related post “What Are the Benefits of a House Style Guide?” That post defines house style guides and shares three things to do before creating your own. And of course, it discusses the benefits of using one.
At the end of this post, you’ll find three bonus tips for writing a successful house style guide.
Ten Example Topics for Your House Style Guide
Before you jump into the list, I’d like to share an important disclaimer: Your house style guide should be an expression of your business writing goals, strategies, and yes, style. Therefore, it should be customized to your needs. There’s no reason to bloat your guide with information you’re not actually going to use.
With that in mind, let’s get to the list…
1. Product Names
Will the registration mark appear every time a product is mentioned or just the first time?
Are all words in the product name capitalized? Are they capitalized every time the name is written?
Further Reading: When to Capitalize Product Names
2. The Possessive Form of the Organization’s Name
Some organizations believe that adding a possessive apostrophe s to their name (e.g., GiantCo’s) weakens brand identity. As such, they only show possession through alternative phrasing.
For example, the sentence “GiantCo’s profits increased by 73 percent” is rephrased as “GiantCo saw a 73 percent increase in profits.”
Rephrasing can occasionally sound awkward or pretentious, so a total ban on the apostrophe s may be counterproductive.
3. Number Formatting
Should numbers appear as numerals or as words? Will there be separate rules for single and multiple digits? What about symbols associated with numbers, such as the percent sign?
Further Reading: Three Tips for Starting a Sentence with a Number
General punctuation issues usually don’t need to be included in house style guides. However, you may want to cover specific issues that can cause conflict between employees (such as the serial comma) or reveal inconsistencies in your content (such as the punctuation of bulleted lists).
Further Reading: How to Write Vertical Lists
5. Formal Language versus Casual Language
Will you refer to customers directly (i.e., you, yours) or indirectly (e.g., the customer, the client, the stakeholder)?
Are contractions (e.g., it’s, we’ll, you’re) okay? What about slang or text abbreviations?
Further Reading: Five Tips for Using Contractions in Business Writing
6. Prohibited Words
For legal reasons, some organizations compile a list of prohibited words such as always, guarantee, 100 percent, exclusive, and promise.
If necessary, speak with your legal advisor to see if your organization needs to prohibit specific words.
7. Mandatory Words
For legal, marketing, or branding purposes, some organizations also have a list of mandatory words or phrases that must be used to describe a product or service.
For example, a shoe manufacturer may decide to refer to its products as running shoes rather than tennis shoes.
Again, speak with your legal advisor to see if your organization should mandate specific words.
8. Industry Specific Terms, Abbreviations, and Acronyms
Most industries have their own technical terms, abbreviations, and acronyms.
Consider including a list that shows the spelling and capitalization of this type of “insider” language. You may even want to turn the list into a glossary with definitions for new employees.
Some organizations include formatting information such as preferred fonts and font sizes, margin widths, page numbering, and heading capitalization.
If you have a lot of formatting styles, consider creating a separate guide for that purpose with example templates.
10. Primary Style Guide and Dictionary
List the primary style guide and dictionary that augments your organization’s house style guide.
Your guide doesn’t need to cover every conceivable writing and spelling issue—because the writing world’s primary style guides and dictionaries have already done that.
Three of the Most Popular Style Guides
- The Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago style)
- The Associated Press Stylebook (AP style)
- Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA style)
Further Reading: Which Style Guide Is Best for You?
Three of the Most Popular Dictionaries
- Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition
- Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fifth Edition
- The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition
Further Reading: Which Dictionary Is Best for You?
Indicate where members of your organization can find these resources if they aren’t readily available on the office bookshelf.
Three Tips for Writing Your House Style Guide
As mentioned above, style guides are customizable. Here are three more tips for getting the most out of your guide.
1. Be Flexible
If your product manual is more formal than your corporate blog, consider creating a separate section or individual guide for each platform, although the core styles should remain consistent.
2. Be Generous with Examples
Real-world examples make guidelines easier to understand and remember. So, try to accompany each style guideline with an example (or three) that represents your organization’s typical content.
3. View Your Styles from Multiple Angles
Gain a different perspective by looking at your competition’s publicly available content. This can show you what works—and what doesn’t.
You may also want to hire a freelance editor to evaluate your existing material. Fresh eyes can offer a clear, unbiased analysis of current progress and future needs. (The Editorial Freelancers Association and the American Copy Editors Society are both great places to find freelance editors.)
Further Reading: How to Hire an Editor, Part 1: Where to Find an Editor