Writing your personal style guide

Style guides are created to ensure what’s published sounds like it’s coming from the same place. That works on a personal level, too.

Writing says something about your topic, but it also says something about you. What would you like to project? Sincerity? Humor? A casual, laid-back style? A confident, authoritative tone?

A personal style guide can help lay the foundation for your writing. And because they are personal, I can’t tell you what the perfect style guide looks like, but I can share how I approached mine.

  • Make it short and sweet. Every web wordsmith values brevity, and short docs get read and referenced consistently.
  • Make it compelling. “Be clear” is advice so generic that it won’t stay with you—even if you wrote it!
  • Make it (mostly) evergreen. Rarely are opinions set in stone. But you should strive for guidelines that won’t go stale quickly.

Excerpt from my style guide

Be positive, be likable. Readers who like you are readers who listen to you, support you, trust you, and buy from you. Being contrarian doesn’t mean being a jerk.

Clean and elegant. Let your ideas leave the impression. Only use emphasis when needed, not at a whim. DON’T WRITE LIKE A CRAZY PERSON!!! No emoticons, and don’t be weirdly friendly. It’s creepy.

Use dense words. “Swift” is the same as “expeditious,” and paints a better, more readily understood picture.

Aim to never be misunderstood. You are teaching, you are sharing tangible takeaways that readers will apply. Don’t let the writing drown out the advice and ideas.

Don’t oversell. Be down to earth and relatable. If your writing looks like it was attacked by a rampaging thesaurus, you’re trying too hard.

Be selfless. Write to express, not to impress. The words you choose are for the use of someone else. Always choose selflessly.

Never forget what writing is capable of. By way of a deep, respected archive or a single brilliant post, great writing can move mountains. It may be referenced for years to come. It may introduce you to the perfect new teammate. It may create connections, open doors, or jumpstart opportunities. There are only so many keystrokes to be made in a lifetime, so try to make them count.

Never perfect

Like everything else, the “perfect” personal style guide isn’t attainable. But perfection isn’t your goal.

Keeping one close helps for two simple reasons:

  1. Most of us forget more than we know.
  2. It is easy to be led astray in writing; why not have values you can continually revisit?

If you slave over a style guide you’ll end up creating an editorial prison. With guidelines so meticulously defined, there won’t be any room left for creativity. So keep it simple, but make the effort to sincerely define what great writing looks like to you.

About the author: Gregory Ciotti is a marketer and (embarrassingly infrequent) writer. Previously, he led content marketing on Shopify’s growth team and was executive editor on the communications team.