Efficiently Effective

Do you really need a content style guide?

February 26, 2018

Content style guides and voice and tone definitions have been a strong asset in content strategists' toolkits for years. They are vital to align stakeholders on content. But Jason Fox believes many content style guides are flawed, just like the principle of the content style guide.

Jason Fox

We talk with Jason Fox, a UX writer based in Denver, about his grievances with content style guides, and voice and tone definitions in particular and come up with tactics to improve the concept and the implementation. 



One of the staples of content strategy is the content style guide. In it, we define the consistent voice of the organisation and the tone we should take in specific situations. They also define how to use different types of content, how elaborate or concise we can be with words and perhaps point out some specific grammar or vocabulary use. We need style guides to align stakeholders on content.

I think it’s fair to say that the most famous content styleguide is the one from MailChimp. The online documentation covers guidelines, from how to use alt text to how to write legal copy.

The document is beautiful and makes a lot of sense. But it’s also, huge. You can find it on styleguide.mailchimp.com. I’ll also put a link in the shownotes, which can be found on efficientlyeffective.fm.

And then, I came across a Medium post by Jason Fox. According to him, voice and tone guides are overrated, a waste of money, useless. Wow!

With the examples he references in his post, I do get where he’s coming from. Let me name a few. In content style guides, writers are being told to ‘Have fun’, ‘be authentic’ and ‘be badass baby’. Well yeah, that does feel a bit weird. He also quotes styleguides that propose you ‘Avoid jargon, trendy constructions and buzzwords’ - these pointers are basic knowledge, according to Fox.

I was intrigued, perhaps even startled, and I had questions. So here we are, Jason Fox! Please tell us who you are, and maybe also: who do you think you are for writing this?

Jason Fox: “Who do I think I am and who am I... Thank you so much for having me, I am a writer based in Denver, Colorado. I have a lot of experience working in the marketing and advertising world and also in the last several years I've had the opportunity to help write words for software.

I think that having that experience in the marketing world and in the product world maybe informed the feelings that I had toward voice and tone style guides. Really that article that I wrote I think ... I don't blame you, I guess, for being startled by the article when I was writing it. I was like, "Do I really want to write this? Is this going to be something that's going to stick with me, that I'll have to have conversations with-"”

Saskia: “Yes you do.”

Jason: “Yes I do. It's one of the first. I've imagined how I would have this conversation with potential clients. They're like, "We read this article where you said that we don't need a voice and tone style guide and that doesn't seem to make much sense."

So I don't know if it's maybe doing more harm than good for my career but where I was coming from with that piece is that to go all the way back when I graduated college in 2010 with a degree in writing I thought, "Okay great. Who's going to hire me and what am I going to write?"

I didn't necessarily have any ambitions of going into journalism or into even marketing or advertising. I just went out into the world with the ability to write and wanted to see who needed me to write for them. I realized over time that a lot of the projects that you got involved in early on as a writer are those projects where you can convince people that you are able to sound like a subject matter expert." Or that you are able to provide them with a particular writing service that they need. Very early on there was this feeling of not necessarily being a con artist but in a way it's like being a con artist. Like this copywriter con artist where you're selling people these writing services and often times you need to convince yourself that it's something that they need, and you have to convince them that it's something that they need. I think in that process you might arrive at something that is maybe more than what they need.

I started to see this in myself, selling voice and tone style guides to brands. These very large, inflated documents that took a significant amount of time to develop. Especially as the field of UX writing became more popular I noticed that developing voice and tone style guides became more of a necessity. But also more of a skillset that professional writers were using to market themselves to potential clients and to jobs. Then there was this reaction to that where it seemed like companies were beginning to become convinced that they needed to hire somebody with the specific skillset of writing a voice and tone style guide. As all that was happening I would be in meetings. We'd have multiple meetings talking about voice and tone style guides. Everybody in the company was involved in different nuances of how to develop it. I remember sitting with my friend at a bar one evening and we just broke down what a style guide actually could be and how much of it is really just bullshit. When I say bullshit, I mean there's a lot I think in some style guides that can be trimmed away. I guess that was the impetus for wanting to write an article like that."

Saskia: “So it's a frustration that has been growing inside of you for a while now after having created a few style guides, perhaps also having to have worked with style guides that other people have created you had to follow?”

Jason:  “Yeah. I think that sort of dual experience of writing a style guide that is going to be forced upon writers and then being the writer who is having the style guide directed at them, those two feelings. Which I cannot understand to a certain extent. But I kept trying to compare it to, I wouldn't ask, I don't know, a developer to write a document outlining his understanding of ruby syntax. There's just so much that was built into style guides and the notion of style guides, from my experience, that I was experiencing that was just I think common sense. I think that should be left to the abilities of a writer rather than a document. I don't know. Part of me wants to argue that you should hire good writers rather than hire one writer to create a document that will make anybody the writer that you need.”

Saskia: “You mentioned that for you it often felt like bullshit. Can you further define ‘bullshit’ for me? What are particular elements or triggers for you to call bullshit on a style guide?

Jason:  “My God. Going in that direction I think it's important to say that style guides are about consistency and about consistency within the context of a brand and consistency within the context of multiple collaborators on a product. I will also preface my bullshit by saying that there are many writers that I really admire who are I think ... Would be able to maybe sway me away from some of the things that I think are bullshit. But maybe not, I don't know.

Some of the things that I think are just unnecessary would be like telling a writer to have fun and be playful. The statements that you see in style guides where they're giving you these very broad, sweeping, very ridiculous-sounding ways to use language, I put together this collection in the article that you're referencing of guidelines that say things like, "Make friends by talking to your customer in a caring and friendly tone." Or to have fun by engaging customers with playful language. I think that that stuff is just ridiculous. I don't think that any writer should ever be condescended to in that way. If you have a writer that you need to instruct in that way you should maybe consider transitioning then maybe into a training role where they're learning a little bit more rather than drafting a copy that's going to get shipped to a product. Also, I think a lot of the rules around clarity and simplicity I think can be attributed or not attributed, but can be removed from a voice and tone style guide because I think that any writer who has made it to the point where they've been hired by a company to write copy for software should understand the principles of writing clearly and succinctly. In the absence of those skills within a writer there's references that exist already. There's the Strunk and White Elements of Style. There are very well fleshed out style guides, associated press style guides and MLA, Chicago Manual of Style or so many different types of style guides that I think that it's okay to just refer writers to those resources that already exist. And then within your own documentation to have guidelines and rules that are very unique and specific to your brand, to the restrictions of your software and your process.

Especially when it comes to UX writing, especially with developing copy for mobile. There are a lot more restrictions where I think there's probably room to have that type of documentation.”

Saskia: “Obviously there's a difference between UX copy and for instance marketing copy and newsletter copy. I think that a lot of the examples that you mentioned in your article feel very marketing-y right?”

Jason:  “Mm-hmm.”

Saskia: “In that sense, maybe for marketing writers it's still quite useful to have those pointers. But you will also need not only to hear like, "You have to write in a caring, friendly tone." But what is that exactly? I think I would personally still find that okay to read in a style guide as long as it was more defined and also had some examples like, "This is what we mean by that and this is on the other side of that. So, this is too much, or this is too little of that." How do you feel about that? Do you think that for some writing roles it's still useful?”

Jason:  “Yeah. I think that's a good point and I think it's interesting because in the context of marketing it can very much be used I think as a helpful resource for writers, for managing writers. I think it can also be helpful for writers to manage the marketers around them. Oftentimes as a brand evolves and as their voice evolve marketing wants to exert more influence over all the messaging in every channel that messaging goes out through. That would even be in newsletters and in some of the more marketing-related assets. I think that for a writer to be able to create this touchstone document where you say, "Here's how we have defined having fun with our audience." As long as there are sufficient examples and not a very generic statement of how to have fun I can see some purpose there. But again, I think that it would be very important to support that type of guidance with clear examples.

I think that oftentimes those types of guidelines just come from a place of, "We need to tell the writer that we are an easygoing brand or a brand that doesn't insult its customers, or doesn't use stern language with its customers." I think that, I don't know, it should go beyond that because those are things that again I think have been covered in other style guides. Any writer who's made it to the point that they're writing for a brand probably already understands. But yeah, I do think that it can be helpful. And I think like I said there are some very unique use cases for different brand voices that should be documented. So it's unique to your brand. I suppose that the issues that I have are with the very blanket statements and the things that don't need to be said that are often said I just think maybe for the sense of saying them. I don't know why they're said, I don't know.”

Saskia: "I think sometimes it could also be to remind the writer who they are working for themselves. As a reminder what the company is like because a brand itself doesn't necessarily always define that outspokenly. And then you have this document that says like, "We treat our customers like friends," - which is also a quite ridiculous statement. But also you would never read that literally in marketing copy. But as a reminder how what the stance is of an organization towards their customers?”

Jason:  “I sometimes feel like these documents are trying to take the place of conversations and collaboration rather than having a document handed to me by a designer or by a product owner or something like that. I think it would be much more helpful to have a way for them to integrate their work process with mine so that I'm not stepping on anyone's feet but that I can still have conversations about what it means to write in a particular channel for the brand without someone saying, "Just look at the style guide." I want to have those conversations, I want to be able to work with people and to not rely only on a static document. But to continue to discover new ways to write about a company without I think saying that it's already been defined and just shut up and read the voice and tone style guide.”

Saskia: “I really like the sound of that because something that is also some feedback that you sometimes get as a style guide creator is that people don't always read it. So if you create it for your client as a freelancer and then half a year later you come back and then maybe just one person has read it and the other people just maybe glanced at it and never used it. So it's also not very useful. So I like the idea of what you're saying, of making it more like a way of working together.”

Jason:  “Yeah. And I think the ability to have some kind of living documentation, whether it's in a Google document or on paper or in some sort of evolving prototype. Like if you're working in InVision where you can have conversations both about interfaces and about copy that's used in the interfaces. I think outside of the context of having those living documents where people can have conversations, one thing I guess I left out would be Slack channels. I think having an understanding of the processes that people who are working on a product adhere to because depending on a particular individual's project or skill set they have a different approach. A UX designer would have a human-centered design process with six or seven different steps. I think having a place where you can outline those steps, I mean they would generally be something like empathize, define, ideate, develop, validate and iterate and then repeating on those last two steps.

I think that having that type of process outlined in a document somewhere and maybe being able to annotate where a writer fits within that process and where a designer fits and where a developer fits within that process can be much more helpful than at the beginning of the process giving the writer a style guide and saying, "At the end of the process we expect you to have filled our application with copy that adheres to this." I think that at each stage when you're going through the ideation of building up personas and brainstorming are you doing it in a way that the writer can have input and can have conversations with developers and designers and with the entire team in a way that's not stepping on their feet? It's not like, "Well let me later on jump into sketch and edit your design files in a way that you're not going to understand and that's going to hurt the design."

I found that being able to outline those processes and figure out where everybody fits is maybe more helpful. Because then it allows room for the discussions that I think sometimes style guides try to take the place of.”

Saskia: “That's super interesting. It seems that you really pulled it from a marketing place to a more UX place with an approach like that. But it makes sense. I feel that when I first came across voice and tone guides it still was more like a content strategy UX thing and it kind of got sucked away towards marketing. And we're kind of reclaiming it with an approach like this so, yay for revolution!”

Jason:  “I think the same could be applied to marketing as well. There's different stages of the marketing campaigns depending on what you're working on.“

Saskia: “I was thinking that also for ownership it's a much better thing. Because there's more people working on it instead of just someone throwing this document at you and saying, "Follow it." Whilst when you have this thing that you're working on, this process that you're collaborating on then it's also your document in the broad sense of the word. It's also your style guide that way.”

Jason:  “Yeah I think you're right. Yeah you're right. That's interesting. Wasn't that the initial purpose of a style guide, was to align your stakeholders, align all the people on a project and get them to agree and to take ownership over the voice and tone? But then what happens is that you produce the document and it's static and it gets old. People leave, new people come and it loses the shared ownership. That makes sense.”

Saskia: “In the process we're just redefining this whole thing that maybe does have a place in our world, in good UX and good content after all. As long as we're doing it right right?”

Jason:  “I guess in that way I have resold myself on the idea of voice and tone. Style guidance.”

Saskia: “Let's say if your boss asks you next Monday, "Hey Jason, we actually need a style guide, a voice and tone guide." What will you say?”

Jason:  “I would say let's talk about it. I would say that I think that there are probably some very specific reasons why we might want to document how we write about particular things. It might be really nice to have a glossary with examples and I think that there are some interesting ways that we can supplement a voice and tone style guide or maybe bypass one entirely by working together differently. I would say, let's talk about it. Let's understand why we think we need it, how we might benefit from it. Maybe ways of doing it that become less restrictive and actually help us write better copy rather than feel like we're being handed a document that we ultimately won't use all that much. The feeling that I've had from the style guides that I've written and that have been given to me are that you read it once and then you forget about it.

It's a nice thing to look at and to be like, "Oh okay, I guess that makes sense." I think I myself have very rarely needed to use one as a constant resource and I have very rarely given a style guide to someone who said, "I use this every day." Or something along those lines, yeah.”

Saskia: “Same. I think I'm not bad at sensing what an organization is about and what their character is like, what their traits are. To be honest with you, I might be the same and I would take this document and say “thank you” and then just browse through it, skim through it really quickly and then just go like, "Yeah I get it." But to really, really go deeply into it, I don't know. At the same time it's also probably for some organizations a fallback mechanism. It still is a good thing to have in whatever way, to have some sort of style guide or style process documentation or whatever. If there's more than one person writing copy, UX copy, marketing copy, whatever. It's always good to have something to point to like, "Yeah but this is what we mean and this is what we are like." That's why I still think it has a place in what we do and… where was I going with this?”

Jason:  “I could sense it. While you were talking I was thinking about a conversation that I'd read in this Slack channel. I don't know. Maybe it's related, maybe my mind was wandering but I think it's related to the direction you were going in. Someone was asking about style guides and whether or not he should try to convince his company that they needed one. He just needed some feedback. There was this guy, Val Klump who works at Gusto. He was talking about how at Gusto they have these three different types of style guides. He said there's a copy style guide, a voice guide and a UX writing guide. Then he broke it down even further and he said that the style guide is just grammar and spelling and whatever special copy cases might exist for the company. The voice guide had attributes of the voice and specifically his company uses like four adjectives.

Then there were examples of great writing that showcase those. And then within UX, writing it was primarily like screenshots with hyper-specific rules that were only relevant to the product. I was just then directly quoting Val.

There certainly is a place for those very specific and purposeful types of documents. Then you need someone talented and committed, somebody like Val to maintain those documents because I think as brands evolve, like I said, marketing will want to have an influence over those documents and different people. Different people across the organization will want to change it or manipulate it or add footnotes to it. So having somebody as a gatekeeper to those types of things is important. This makes me think of the Mailchimp style guides. I don't know if you've had a chance to look at them?”

Saskia: “Oh yeah.”

Jason:  “You probably have, yeah. They're magnificent. For whatever reason they have two of them and they're massive. I just can't imagine who's in charge of maintenance for those and that's ... You create a style guide and if you're really going to do it well you almost need a person specifically hired just to maintain it.”

Saskia: “That's true. They're impressive documents right?”

Jason:  “Yeah they can be.”

Saskia: “Maybe for a small company that's also just too much. It's just too much overhead, it's too much hassle. Perhaps you can just all fit it on a one pager or so or fit the most important stuff on one page. But then again we needed a process, we needed the communication and the conversation.”

Jason:  “The size of an organization dictating their need for a style guide and also the scope of what their style guide will look like. Because I think a lot of the issue that I have with style guides is I see a lot of freelance writers trying to sell smaller brands and agencies use very elaborate style guides, something that would be similar to a Mailchimp or a list apart style guide that would take weeks to develop and thousands of dollars when really it's not the right fit for a smaller brand. Whereas an enormous company like Mailchimp where there's content everywhere in so many different potential areas where copy could fail the user I guess it makes sense to have a much more comprehensive document. But not everybody needs that. It could be like you said just a one-pager for a particular brand. So maybe understanding what you need is helpful.”

Saskia: “Absolutely. So to wrap it up what do we want organizations and people who create style guides to remember from this?”

Jason:  “I suppose one of the things, one of the issues that really rubbed me the wrong way, that led me to write the article, is at a lot of times I felt like a voice and tone style guide was designed to micro-manage a writer away from actually being involved in some of the more interesting aspects of developing a product or developing a campaign or engaging with people in the company. It felt like it was a way to isolate the writer so that the writer wasn't always tapping somebody on the shoulder. I would say that consider what you need a voice and tone style guide for and what your ultimate objective is for it.”

Saskia: “That's also an interesting point by the way that you just made. They use it so that a writer can use independently but then still if you would use it that way still have the danger that they might misinterpret what you wrote in that style guide. It's just not a waterproof document.”

Jason:  “I guess that leads to maybe a very broad piece of advice would be don't let the voice and tone style guide replace conversations and look for areas where you can very consistently use the voice and tone style guide to improve basic units of language so that mistakes aren't made so that you don't ... If you have an application that is going to be tracking a user's location you want to be very sensitive toward privacy and anxiety. There's probably a very specific set of language rules that you want to adhere to that are different from an application. That maybe helps, I don't know, I'm going to come up with some insane example. Helps a user find a recipe for dinner or something like that. It's a much different set of considerations. I think identifying what you really need the guide for and not just what you think you need it for and who you think the guide is going to impress. Sometimes I think the guides are sold up to executives and other people or maybe an agency might sell it to a client to say, "Look, we're actually working really hard."”

Saskia: “Overall we'd rather have a conversation than a static document. But might I just conclude by saying that that conversation should maybe be ‘caring’, ‘friendly’ and maybe a little ‘badass, baby’?

Jason:  “Yes, okay. I will allow it.”

Saskia: “Just this once.”

Jason:  “Yes.”

Saskia: “Thank you so much Jason.”

Jason:  “Thank you Saskia. It was wonderful speaking with you!”

That’s it for this episode. We’d love to hear your ideas about content styleguides and how we could improve on them. Share your thoughts in the comment section on efficientlyeffective.fm or on Twitter.

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Editing and technical help by Sander Spolspoel. Music by Kevin McLeod at Incompetech.com.

Efficiently Effective is a production by the Dutchess