7 Ways to Improve Your Style Guide
Sooner or later in your copywriting life, you'll be involved in creating a style and branding guide. This is your organization's final (but malleable) word on how to communicate your public identity.
It will create uniform standards for copy and design, including details on how, when and where to display your logo and which fonts, layouts, colors and other elements you'll choose to tell people, in a hundred subtle ways, how to feel about you.
Creating a style guide is detailed and painstaking. You have to pay constant and equal attention to the forest and the trees. Here are seven suggestions to help your guide stay on track:
1. Keep your logo flexible
In the beginning, your logo, which took so much time and effort to get just right, may seem untouchable. But as time goes by you're going to want to use it in ways you never imagined: Somebody will want to embroider it on a baseball cap. There'll be a mail package that needs to be printed in black and white. As you become more famous there'll even be times you want to use the graphic element without the name.
So create multiple color schemes. If you have a four-color logo, develop two-color, one-color, and black-and-white versions. Figure out how to separate the graphic, name and your tagline from each other. You may never need to use them separately, but in case it does happen you don't want to have to figure it out on the fly.
2. Claim your acronym
In many organizations there is a contingent that thinks you should always have to say and write your full name. There are three problems with this viewpoint: First, it reflects a lack of confidence in your ability to grow your brand. Second, you risk making your donors' and prospects' job harder. And third, if you don't claim your acronym early and link it inextricably to your brand, somebody else will. Then you've got the kind of brand confusion that can't be fixed without lawyers. Just ask the WWF.
3. Words are not design elements
Don't allow your compelling copy to become disjointed and shuffled around for the sake of aesthetic balance. Use fonts sizes that are easy for your donors to read.
4. Images are not decorations
What's true of words is also true of graphics. Images and copy are a team. Your writers and artists need to be a team too. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a picture, plus a few well-crafted lines, is worth a million.
5. Carve it in stone but not on a tombstone
A style guide is more than a list of suggestions but less than an inerrant scripture. Your brand identity is important and shouldn't be tampered with on a whim. Nor should it leave you on the side of the road of changing circumstances.
It's a good idea to review your guide once a year to make sure that you haven't strayed from your core identity, but also to make sure you're not walking around wearing your grandfather's typeface.
6. Search out and correct errors common to your organization
From the caprices of a CEO to the bad habits of a copywriter, almost every organization has a handful of malapropos that pop up more than others. There was a director once who would send background notes that included the phrase, "for all intensive purposes," for example.
While you're writing your style guide, look back over your internal communications, note the ones that seem to occur most often and include them in the style guide — and be sure to cite the source of the correction.
7. As you finish each draft, read it aloud
This is good advice for any copy you write. Even though the public won't see your style guide, you should still pay close attention to inflection and tone. Follow the same communications protocols whether you're emailing the person in the next cubicle or writing a letter to your donors. There's no downside, and it just keeps your skills sharp.
One last piece of advice on writing your organization's branding and style guide: Nitpick. Books, chapters, paragraphs, sentences, letters. Writing is composed entirely of little details, precisely arranged to create a cumulative effect. Little errors can make a big difference in whether you're saying what you really want to say. Change H2O to HO2, for example, and you've traded your glass of water for a hole in the ozone.
Willis believes in expressive writing, exceptional fundraising, and exuberant living.
Willis Turner is the senior copywriter at Huntsinger & Jeffer. He was an experienced writer and creative director in the traditional advertising world for more than 20 years before making the switch to fundraising nearly 15 years ago. In his work with nonprofit organizations and associations, he has written thousands of appeals, renewals and acquisition communications for every medium. He creates direct-response campaigns, as well as collateral materials and communications, that get attention, tell emotional stories, and persuade people to take action or make a donation.