I love a good style guide, but let’s admit it, editors get carried away.
If it’s longer than a few pages, most designers, and even a lot of marketing folk, will never read it. (Sorry writers, your lovingly prepared Tone of Voice document will be lightly skimmed by bemused colleagues).
I think that in most circumstances, what’s really needed is a kind of Minimum Effective Dose stylesheet.
What is the bare minimum you can do to elevate your copy from amateurish to professional?
That’s what I’ve tried to answer here.
Consistency = Win
These are some quick tips and tricks. They’re chosen with two things in mind:
- An international audience
- Maximum readability
If you’re trying to improve UX, the following ‘rules’ should lead to easy wins.
Above all, be consistent. Your users will appreciate it.
Obligatory note for the people who really, really care about this stuff…Nothing is absolute, and I’m not trying to start a debate about ‘correct’ grammar and punctuation. I have my preferences, but internal consistency is far better than slavishly following something like Chicago style to the letter. Keep that in mind and decide what works best for your brand.
A Super Simple Style Guide
Small to big is the most commonly understood international format:
dd mm yyyy
dd [name of month] yyyy
Spelling out the name of the month adds clarity and is generally preferable to just numerals:
22 June 2018
Go with this and use it consistently. No commas and no -nd or -th endings. They look messy and vary internationally.
-ise or -ize endings
-ize is preferable but it doesn’t really matter. Pick one and stick to it.
Spell out one to ten:
She had five apples.
11 onwards should be in numerals:
He was 12 years old.
Use commas in large numbers:
When referring to a product or business, convention is to capitalize the name but not the ‘The’ beforehand:
She loved the Xbox
She loved The Xbox
Some companies love to include and capitalize the ‘The’ in their name. Some go even further and capitalize minor words such as ‘in’ and ‘of’. This is known as Start Case. I think this can be confusing, but if you insist on doing so, do so consistently:
We are the Awesome Company of Cool People
We are The Awesome Company Of Cool People
Should be used as little as possible. People use them incorrectly all the time and the meaning is usually clear without. Just avoid the whole issue.
En dashes (–)
En dashes should be used for two things:
- To indicate ranges
- To break up clauses.
For ranges, read the phrase out loud. Use the en dash any place you would say ‘to’ . This can be used for numbers:
The focal length is 18–55mm.
And words that measure ranges:
The event was held May–June.
The dash should be closed with no space on either side.
If you are using a dash to break up a sentence, and you need something stronger than a comma, use an en dash with spaces either side.
On mac, you insert an en dash with Option-key & -.
Using hyphens when you mean to use en dashes looks unprofessional. Using en dashes properly makes you look like you know what you’re doing. Win. 🙂
Em dashes ( — )
Should not be used. Interestingly (well I find it interesting…), Medium loves em dashes and automatically replaces en dashes with em dashes if you try to use them as a mark of separation. This does look nice, but is actually quite unconventional, especially outside of America. But hey, it’s up to them.
You might have been taught at school to use commas to separate lists, except for the last item, where you would use an and with no preceding comma.
This can be confusing. Consider this classic example, from an apocryphal book dedication:
To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.
A comma before and removes the ambiguity:
To my parents, Ayn Rand, and God.
Always use the serial comma.
And that’s it!
I think if you were to follow these pointers and nothing else, you could make a noticeable difference to your copy. Just making sure that dates, numbers, dashes, and commas are used consistently will elevate a user’s perception of the product.
Once you’ve decided, as an individual or team, on a handful of rules, you now need a process to make sure you don’t slip up.
- Scan your own copy
- Print it out and ask a colleague to proofread it
- Wait a day
- Scan it one more time before publishing.
It’s amazing how much more you notice when it’s on paper.
It’s amazing how much more you notice if you review it the next morning.
In closing, here are some points to consider for that final proofread:
If in doubt, cut it.