You do not need a 50-page document for your marketing style guide. Ours is less than 1,000 words.
I once spent three days locked in a room with three other writers arguing about style and grammar as we tried to develop rules for our style guide.
Em dashes. En dashes. Bullet points. Oxford commas.
It went on and on and on.
At one point we were diagramming sentences on a whiteboard—trying to work through one of the finer points of English we’d all forgotten about.
What does it feel like to argue for eight straight hours about grammar and style?
Well… about like this.
It was pure madness of course.
You do not have to spend a month creating a giant marketing style guide that covers every possible situation your writers will ever face.
There’s a better way.
Style guides should be as simple as possible
Here’s a secret: If you write a giant style guide, no one will ever use it.
That’s exactly what happened in my old job. We spent weeks refining the new guide, then printed 50 copies and handed them out around the office.
Where they sat on people’s desks collecting dust.
Because… do you know who wants to read a 50-page manual about grammar, writing, and style?
NO ONE, that’s who.
How we created a super-minimal (and super functional) style guide
You don’t need a 50-page document (or a huge website) for your marketing style guide.
Ours is less than 1,000 words, and we refer to it often because it’s just that useful.
To create it, we assumed two things:
- Our writers already knew grammar.
- There are wonderful resources on the web that cover any formal grammar questions they might have. Check out the amazing Mignon Fogarty (aka Grammar Girl) or Purdue’s fantastic OWL website for examples.
If we eliminate grammar from the style guide, what’s left? Actual style questions.
- Do we write our company name as “Groove” or “groove”?
- Do we use the serial (aka “Oxford”) comma?
- Do we put periods at the end of our bullet points?
You won’t find the answer to those questions in a grammar book or an online resource, so we put them in our style guide.
Everything else, we cut.
Steal our official style guide + a blank style guide template
If you’d like to steal the official style guide we refer to internally, you can grab that right here.
It’s slightly longer than the general guidelines you’ll find below (but still less than 1,000 words). It includes a bit more about our branding, style, and tone, including how we talk about our competitors.
It also comes with a simple, fill-in-the-blank template to get you started with your own marketing style guide.
We’ve made it available as a free download.
An ultra-minimal style guide for online marketing
This style guide is purposely brief. It’s just enough to help you create content that is clear, consistent, and helpful—regardless of the author.
Consistency is the goal here, not being right.
Also, to quote Orwell:
“Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”George Orwell
Voice and tone
- Use active voice whenever possible.
- Use contractions.
- Avoid jargon.
- Use terms the target audience will understand.
- If you don’t know what terms the audience will understand, you don’t know them well enough to write for them.
- Avoid vague words such as “maybe,” “might,” or “some.”
- Aim for grade level 6 or 7 (refer to Hemingwayapp.com).
- Spell out numbers that are smaller than 10.
- Emoji 🤔 are acceptable, but use them sparingly.
- On Groove-owned web properties, mild swear words are acceptable (think: “bullshit”).
Headings and subheadings
- Write headings (H1) in title case unless the heading is a punctuated sentence:
- Customer Service Ticketing System Magic: We Cut Response Time by 50% Using This Feature
- Pro tip: Use titlecase.com to get this right.
- Write subheadings (H2, H3, etc.) in sentence case:
- What is a customer service ticketing system?
- In general, avoid using abbreviations, especially for industry-related terms.
- Write “customer support” instead of “CS.”
- Write acromnys first, then write them parenthetically
- NPS (Net Promoter Score) is one of the best indicators of customer satisfaction. The inventors of NPS explain…
- When using bullet-point lists:
- Use parallel construction.
- If the bullet points are full sentences, add a period after each one.
- If the bullet points are phrases, add a period to the last bullet point only.
- Use the serial (or Oxford) comma:
- I love Groove’s use of conventions, grammar, and punctuation.
En dash and em dash
- Use the en dash (–) and em dash (—) without spaces:
- We’ll be out of town Friday–Sunday.
- We’ve made a lot of changes to our website—all for the better.
Italics and bold
- Use italics to emphasize a word, phrase, or quote.
- Use bold to make something to stand out.
- In headings and subheadings, use single quotation marks instead of double quotation marks:
- Target keywords such as ‘business strategies’
- Avoid semicolons in almost all cases.
- A semicolon usually means you’ve written a lengthy, difficult-to-read sentence.
- Revise, rephrase, or cut.
Images and formatting
- No walls of text.
- Remember that most readers will scan your article, not read it word-for-word.
- Break up lengthy blocks of text into one, two, or (at most) three-sentence paragraphs.
- Use one visual element every seven to ten paragraphs (roughly).
- Images, gifs, or videos
- Bullet lists
- Pull quotes
- Takeaway boxes
Images and graphics
- Liberally include images and graphics throughout every post.
- Include a relevant caption for all images.
- Pro tip: Links in captions have extremely high click-through rates. If you can link to a content upgrade or a product page within an image caption, do it.
Sources and referencing
- Links should be added naturally and in context. In general, avoid phrases like “click here” or “learn more.”
- In general, avoid referring to competitors or linking to their websites:
Sources and research
- Prioritize original research (which are uniquely valuable) over sources you found on the internet (which anyone can get and are not unique).
- Internal data
- First-person experiences
- Interviews with customers
- Interviews with subject matter experts
- Supplement original research with information you find online.
- Always link your sources. Never make things up.
- Link directly to original content. Never link to an aggregator—especially infographics.
- Don’t reference research or data collected before 2016.
Age and disability
- Don’t reference age or disability unless absolutely relevant.
- Use a person’s preferred pronoun or name.
- Avoid gendered language.
- The singular “they” or “them” is acceptable, though it is better to find an alternative:
- Acceptable: When talking to a customer, ask them for their perspective.
- Better: When talking to customers, ask them for their perspective.
The value of a super-simple marketing style guide
Writing as a marketer isn’t about following an arbitrary set of grammar rules.
You do, however, need a starting point.
It doesn’t matter if you use sentence case or title case for your subheadings.
But you do want your content to be consistent across authors.
Pick your preferences and make sure everyone on the team knows what to do. Or steal our guide and use it for a reference if that’s easier for you.
That’s the point of a style guide.
Not to be right, but just to be professional—to create a shared set of standards for everyone publishing content under your brand.