A style guide is a living project that requires regular care and maintenance. Care for it well, and it will provide for you in return.
How we keep our content style guide current and use-worthy at Dropbox
A brand is more than a logo. People interested in your product experience the full spectrum of your brand, from billboard ads to payment flows and everything between. Your company’s writing helps people to connect with your product, trust what you deliver, and keep using it.
You build trust with the people who use your product by having a cohesive voice, tone, and style across the whole user journey. If your style is inconsistent or varies too much, people can get confused and might abandon your product.
If you call a feature Shopping Cart in one area but Basket o’ Things in another, some people won’t trust your ability to handle sensitive information.
You build trust by being reliable. A content style guide helps to build that foundation of trust.
Why have a content style guide?
A content style guide helps maintain a cohesive writing style across all copy. It can help you define the process for content strategy, and to make sure your copy meets certain regulations, like legal or privacy needs.
How do you maintain a content style guide?
The goal of this post isn’t to tell you how to develop your company’s voice and tone, or how to create your first style guide. There are many articles, courses, and trainings online and off that can help you in those areas.
Over the years, I’ve created and managed many different content style guides for a variety of products, experiences, and audiences.
I created the first-ever content style guide for Google’s former Online Sales & Operations team. I also wrote a style guide for an upscale hair salon that wanted guidelines on how to post to social media like an influencer — and many others in between.
The question I get most often — surprisingly — isn’t, How do I create a content style guide?
Instead, people ask:
- How do I maintain that style guide once I’ve created it?
- What’s the process for governance, decision-making, and updates?
- How do I get people to actually use it once I have a governance process in place?
The Dropbox content style guide
At Dropbox, I manage our internal content style guide. This means I run the monthly meetings, assign tasks, make updates, and share those updates. It doesn’t mean I make all the decisions on my own or tell people what the answer should be. We make decisions as a committee (more on that below).
I also build relationships across the company, especially with teams who can help us with answers, like Security and Legal. People on those teams learn about the style guide and maybe, eventually, come to the meetings to help us make decisions.
Our content style guide covers voice, tone, localization, accessibility, naming, mechanics, and terms and phrases. The majority of it focuses on mechanics and terms. The guide includes everything from how we use emoji and em-dashes to whether we hyphenate “dropdown.” Only internal employees can view the guide, but people across the whole company use it.
The Dropbox Brand team maintains our voice and tone guidelines, but everything else gets updated in our style guide monthly meetings.
The way we make decisions about what to add or update — our process and governance for the Dropbox style guide — is similar to process and governance for other style guides I’ve managed. Other large orgs like The Chicago Manual of Style, BuzzFeed, and the LA Times use a similar process.*
Short overview of how we update the style guide at Dropbox:
- We meet as a group every four weeks and determine which requests are easy decisions and which will require more work.
- We take care of a few easy decisions, and start (or continue, or complete) conversations about harder decisions.
- After we’ve made decisions, we update the style guide and socialize the updates.
* For more information on how media and publishing companies manage their style guide teams, and how decisions get made at influential style guide resources like The Chicago Manual of Style, AP Stylebook, and others, I recommend attending the national conference of ACES, The Society for Editing (or following them on Twitter). The ACES conference is also a great way to meet people who work on big style guides and learn about their process directly.
Process and governance for the Dropbox internal content style guide
Anyone at Dropbox can add a suggestion or request to our feedback doc. This is an internal Dropbox Paper doc that’s a list of things people think we need to add to or update in the style guide. The intro to our style guide includes a link to the feedback doc, so it’s easy to find.
We also have a Slack channel called #askawriter that’s open to the whole company. Anyone can ask a question that a writer will answer. If we can’t answer something in that channel, we add it to the feedback doc.
Types of questions
People from across the company ask questions about things that aren’t listed in the style guide.
They usually ask about mechanics, terms, and phrases — things that come up on their own as common issues:
- Do we capitalize this?
- What’s the official name of that new feature?
- How do we abbreviate this?
- Do we use decimals in prices?
- What’s our standing on this particular phrase?
- Do we have guidelines in place for X, Y, or Z?
- My team is asking the same style or writing questions over and over again. Can I point them to an answer?
But more often, Style Council representatives are the ones who bring questions to the meetings.
Who makes the decisions?
The Style Council
Every four weeks, a group of us meet for an hour to go over the feedback doc. I call us the Style Council, as a nod to the ’80s band fronted by Paul Weller. The Style Council includes representatives from teams across the company:
- UX Writing
- Product Marketing
- Brand Marketing
- CX Customer Education
- Security Operations
- Intellectual Property
- Design Research
- … and a few others
Volunteers and passionate word nerds needed
It’s a volunteer group, meaning everyone who attends wants to be there. Style Council reps are typically people who love style guides and cherish language. They also — critically — get excited about researching, debating, and deciding sometimes tiny details.
One important note is it doesn’t need to be only writers or editors. Some people who don’t consider themselves writers are hugely passionate about language. These people can often spot a typo a mile away. They’re the ones you want on your style team.
No one should ever be required to be on your style guide committee. A content style guide is fueled by passion for cohesive language, consistent terminology, and the ever-changing nuances of modern spelling, grammar, and punctuation. If anyone feels forced to be there, be prepared to face a tough time making decisions.
Debates, research, and relationship-building
Sometimes our decisions take several months to reach. Sometimes we need to research tiny, picky details about spelling, grammar, punctuation, and company style.
People who love this kind of detail work are ideal for the Style Council. People who get excited by long debates with multiple stakeholders make wonderful reps.
Whoever you choose to be on your style committee, it’s important they understand:
- the user experience goals of your product
- the marketing goals of your company
- and the overall business goals
Specialists make great reps because they can speak for their particular part of the company and goals. Depending on your company, that might be someone from SEO, Engineering, or Project Management.
They also need to be willing to reach out to people they don’t know across the company. Much of the work is finding the correct SME (subject matter expert) who can help us make the right decisions.
If someone would rather add things to the feedback doc and have somebody else figure out what we should do about it, that’s totally fine! In fact, we encourage it.
I’ll occasionally survey the Style Council members on the frequency of meetings and whether people are still happy to be involved. Taking a regular pulse check helps make sure the monthly syncs meet everyone’s needs.
Only one updater
While the decision-making group can be as large as you want, it’s important to have only one person update the content style guide.
This is a common practice at large style guide orgs and media and publishing companies. It helps prevent errors, overwrites, and duplication. This person is the only one who adds to, removes from, or otherwise changes the style guide. They’re usually the one who socializes the updates, too.
Our decision process at Dropbox
Review and assign
At our monthly meetings, as a group, the Style Council goes through each listing in the feedback doc, in order. Based on how complex the entry is, we decide if it needs more research.
Will we need to find an SME (subject matter expert), and if so, what team might that person be on? If it needs more research, we assign someone to follow up with an SME.
If the question is fairly straightforward, we talk about it until we reach consensus.
We talk about which surface areas and audience would be affected:
- Does this entry affect in-product writing, emails, blog posts…?
- Does this entry affect people using the product, people reading the blog, people we’re marketing to…?
If more questions than answers come up, we assign someone to follow up with an SME or do more research.
If the entry is a question about voice or tone, we reach out to the Brand team for clarification.
If the entry is a word listed in Merriam-Webster Unabridged, we’ll usually go with what that entry says — but not always!
If it’s something listed in The Chicago Manual of Style or AP Stylebook, we’ll see what they have to say. We lean on Chicago, but we’re not a 100% Chicago guide. If we stray from Chicago or Merriam-Webster, we need a reason why, so we can defend our decisions if we need to.
Often, the entries are for proprietary terms or use, so we can’t look to outside guides for answers. For those, we need to dig deeper within Dropbox.
Sometimes the decisions are hard because we have a variety of personalities in the room, with varying philosophies, and the discussion reaches a stalemate. Fostering a collaborative, calm, and inclusive atmosphere helps! Taking large decisions offline or into a smaller group can also help. The Style Guide lead will generally be the one driving this process.
If we have research or more information from an SME, we’ll incorporate that info into our decision-making. Sometimes this means we have to put entries on the back burner for a while, as teams work out their use of the term.
Updating the guide
Once we’ve decided on a term or guideline and the committee has reached consensus, I add it to the style guide and check it off the feedback list. Then I update the to-dos for the next meeting.
Socializing the updates
Finally, I gather all the new additions or updates and post them to a Slack channel called #styleguideupdates.
At the end of the quarter, I send an email of all the updates to a list of relevant teams (several hundred people). The email includes all the updates and additions to the style guide during that quarter. It also includes links to the style guide and the feedback doc, and a reminder about our #askawriter Slack channel.
The quarterly email not only updates people on what we’ve added or changed, but helps bring the style guide back on their radar. It also introduces the guide to people who’ve recently joined the company or who otherwise haven’t known about it.
Keeping the fire going
So you’ve created your content style guide, developed a steering committee, and determined a rhythm for making updates. The important next step is to keep people aware of the style guide so they actually use it.
Some ideas you might consider:
- Quarterly email updates
- Slack channels or similar messaging forums
- Monthly Lunch and Learns
- Style guide roadshows or presentations for specific teams or the entire company
- Link to the style guide in your email signature or add it to your Slack profile
Some other ways to spread the word include citations, swag, and sharing simple tips.
UX Writer Jennie Tan offers this great suggestion: “One of the things I do is cite the style guide in my content specs so people know my wording decisions are based on guidelines and not whim.”
I collaborated with our Brand team to print up cute bookmarks with the style guide web address and handed them out after an internal talk I gave on writing tips. It’s a sweet surprise to pass by someone’s desk today and see the bookmark on display — I know they’re remembering to use the style guide.
One-minute writing tips
One way I socialized the style guide for a long time was through “one-minute writing tips.” (One of our writers now continues the tradition.) At the beginning of weekly design crits, I’d present to the designers one tip or term pulled from the content style guide.
I followed up at the end of the quarter with a list of the terms we’d covered (including, of course, links to the style guide, feedback doc, and Slack channels).
The designers loved learning about the style guide, and I got fun feedback like:
- I love the tips because they’re lightweight
- Extremely helpful content!
- Love the ongoing awareness of resources available to designers for making quick copy decisions
Stay on track
Keeping a checklist of all these ideas is a good way to help stay on track. Here’s an example of one you can use:
Stay worthy of trust
By putting these ideas into action, you might get similar, excited feedback on your own style guide. Helping people understand your process for making updates provides a level of transparency that internal teams crave, which also helps maintain that foundation of trust and reliability you’ve built with your style guide.