I wrote last week about how to find your tone of voice, and I finished fairly lamely by saying style is a big part of tone, but too big to go into there and then.
Well, I’m back. And I’ve got style.
Copy style is made up of all the tiny decisions you make about how your brand speaks. Whether you permit exclamation marks or think they’re not professional enough. If you Capitalise Job Titles or go for a more modest lowercase form. So many decisions, and all vital to forming the style behind your tones of voice.
The reasons for establishing a brand style are three-fold:
1. Your written output will be consistent, and consistency makes you look neat, organised and reliable
2. You will save time if you don’t have to scrabble about for the ‘right’ way to do something
3. You will parcel up your brand’s essence for inheritance by new recruits, safeguarding your style
I’ve picked the style decisions that are most often plagued by confusion and inconsistency. Get ’em sorted and you’ll have a mini style guide to shake in people’s faces until they conform.
1. How do we treat headings?
As you could guess from its name, title case was the standard case for titles – every major word capitalised, just like you learned at school. It’s seen as a little old-fashioned these days BUT don’t dismiss it out of hand.
For direct response copy (like on posters or flyers) especially, title case often sees better conversion. Supposedly the up-and-down of capitals and lowercase letters makes the text slightly harder to read – which sounds like a negative, but actually means you have more of the reader’s attention. Supposedly.
Only the first letter of the heading capitalised (except for proper nouns like London, of course). The one to go for as a general rule, in my opinion. It’s much less shouty and nicer to read, and it leads the eye into the paragraph underneath.
Ampersands can come in handy for headings because they save you a couple of characters, helping you keep headings short. I actually love how ampersands can look but it seriously depends on the font and also your overall brand style. Just one rule: use ampersands consistently. Set a rule for where they can be used, like headings but not body text.
The main punctuation consideration for headings is whether you allow full stops on the end. Now, I quite like the effect this can have – it makes a short title punchy and bold. However, there is an argument that our brains are programmed to see a full stop as a signal to stop reading. And that’s the LAST thing a heading should make you do!
There is also the question of whether you allow multiple sentences in headings, like:
“Whose carpet tiles are the best? Ours.”
If you do, do you end the heading with a full stop like I just did? I quite like how that looks, but if it was longer it would be a paragraph, not a heading. Sometimes you just have to be strict because ‘oh, maybe just this once’ opens the door to a world of confusion in the future.
2. How big are our paragraphs?
With online copy, you’re fighting for people’s time. They’ve got Facebook open in the next tab, their phone is ringing and their boss just emailed them asking why they’re researching local daycares on his dime. Keep it short, make it easy.
The paragraph as you knew it is no more: you’re now in a world where paragraphs are often just two sentences. My general rule is that a paragraph can be three/four lines once it’s ON the website page (so make a note of how many words make a line in your Content Management System). It’s up to you how many lines you think looks manageable, just keep it neat and short.
You might also want to set a rule for how many paragraphs you have before using a subheading to split up the content. Take a look at my anatomy of a good blog post for more help with that.
3. How do we write numbers?
The general rule for numbers is that any number under 10 is written out, and 10 onwards is written as digits. However, I myself have had to chow down on this particular rule. If you’re writing for, say, a younger audience faced with a whole bunch of confusing information, don’t resist breaking the rules if you could make your copy easier and more informal with digits.
Choose wisely! Small numbers in digits can look a bit slapdash in the wrong place, like you’re texting instead of marketing.
4. What punctuation do we like?
The scourge of the email. Overused to the extreme. The trouble with ellipses is that they represent something incomplete, or uncertain.
If you can’t even finish a sentence when you’re talking about your own product, you’ve got a problem. Coming across as a bit absent-minded or unsure is not a good look when you’re trying to get paid.
I know this is your style guide. But take my advice: don’t allow ellipses in business copy unless they signify an incomplete quote. Once in a blog post, fine. Not in ads. Not on your product pages.
Now, I’m ready to admit I use dashes too much. I do. But it’s because they’re SO GOOD. They get rid of the need for loads of fussy old commas and semi-colons but they also space text out and split up long sentences. And that’s the winner, right there.
A word on the three most common dashes:
- — An em dash is the long one (I don’t use these as they look a bit Dickensian to me)
- – An en dash is a middle-sized dash, which you can use in a similar way to colons and also brackets (which I don’t like to use too much because they seem scatty, like ellipses…oh wait)
- – A hyphen is the little guy, used for making compounds like start-up and check-in
I actually try not to use semi-colons, especially in online copy. They’re a bit over, aren’t they? So old-fashioned and pedantic. Plus, very few people know how to use them confidently, which is a waste of everyone’s time.
Instead, I use the delicious variety of other punctuation available above.
Beware. Although I’ve also had to eat my own words with respect to exclamation marks, they should be used with serious restraint. If something is exciting, then people will find it exciting – don’t tell them they should be excited. That’s like saying “I look nice in this dress, don’t I? Don’t I, darling?”.
5. How do we treat bullet lists?
This is a pet hate of mine. Bullet lists can be so incredibly useful for supplying information in an easily-read format. But they can easily be RUINED by inconsistent use, and they get their revenge by looking very sloppy indeed.
- If you introduce the list with a number, as I did, the items should begin with a number too
- If the list is in order, like a step-by-step guide, the items should be numbered
- If the list is a collection of stuff in no particular order, use bullets
And two decisions to make:
- Do we end all bullets with a full stop?
- If not, how do we treat multiple sentences in bullet lists?
Set a rule and stick to it. Personally, I don’t use full stops on bullet lists unless one or more list items end in a full stop. In that case, I put a full stop on all the items so the one annoying item doesn’t look like a mistake.
6. What do we capitalise?
Things you must capitalise:
- People’s names
- Place names
- Business names (unless trademarked with all lowercase)
- Trademarked products
Things you may capitalise:
- Job titles
- Products or services
A rule I like is to not capitalise anything generic. So, any old ‘site manager’ doesn’t need to be capitalised but ‘John Charming, Site Manager’ does because it refers to a specific person. The same goes for products and services – are they unique to you? If not, capitalising them has a slightly self-important air.
7. Do we use contractions?
You know how people say ‘write how you speak’? In any conversation, you’ll get a lot of contractions like it’s and don’t, so it’s (there I go) almost unnatural to ban them from your copy, especially online.
Sure, if you’re writing a press release or a white paper, you might want to do away with the contractions. But generally, they’re a good way to make people hear your VOICE while they’re reading, because they reproduce the flow of spoken language.
It might be a good idea to take a look at your tones of voice and set rules for which use contractions and which don’t.
8. How do we use quotation marks?
Arrghh. Nightmare. I struggle with this myself. As you might have noticed if you’re particularly eagle-eyed, I’ve used single and double quotation marks in this very article.
My rules for quotation marks:
- Single: something you want to show is an example, hypothetical or even not quite right
We’ve heard waste management is ‘boring’ – but at WeCarryMore, every day is an adventure
- Double: something someone actually said, or part of a story
One customer said: “Drain-Gods are simply the best drain-clearing company I’ve ever come across”
Where my inner struggle comes in is with consistency, or at least the perception of consistency. I know my two rules and that’s the best I can do – but to someone else, my use could look inconsistent. Ah, the life of a copywriter. The struggle is real.
9. Do we use trendy copy?
Yup, there are trends in copy and depending on your audience, there are certain ways of speaking that they will engage with, or even expect. You can vary this slightly across web content, blog and social but don’t do a mix on one platform. It confuses your brand voice to have mega-LOLs one minute and corporate reports the next.
Starting sentences with conjunctions
Your teacher told you that you must never, ever start a sentence with ‘and’, ‘but’ or ‘because’. Well, that’s out the window now. I’d go so far as to say this technique is overused. But I still use it.
Fairly necessary for online copy, where you have nanoseconds to grab attention. However, they’re also good for keeping conversation flow: the more you can vary your sentence structure, the more natural it sounds. Beware of too many short sentences though – you’ll sound like a robot!
What’s a listicle? You’re in one.
Buzzfeed is generally blamed for the rise of the listicle but they’ve been used in marketing since marketing began. Unless you recently arrived in a time machine from the 15th century, you’ll probably have been snared by catchy and often annoying pieces of content in the form of a list.
‘9 uses for peanut butter that don’t involve your mouth’, ‘3 ways to know he’s cheating’, ‘The 27 greatest cat memes of all time’…oh, so many listicles. The internet is full. It is entirely possible to use lists to great (and non-irritating) effect in blogs and web content – I hope I’m doing OK with this one – but you may want to set some boundaries to avoid overuse.
10. How do we spell the words everyone spells differently?
I firmly believe that right and wrong are words that don’t apply to language. As a copywriter, being right is something you have to kiss goodbye to, as every client does things differently.
The best thing you can do about spelling is pick an official style guide you like and not deviate from it. Then everyone in your business has one place to go to look up spellings.
Styles to choose from:
- Guardian and Observer style guide (which is also mega funny)
- BBC News style guide
- Telegraph Style Book
- The Writer style guide
These style guides are great for helping you decide your answers to any of the questions in this post. If you don’t have time to build your own little style guide, adopting any of these would be a fine idea.
Did you miss my post on how to find your business tone of voice? WHY?!How to make a mini style guide for your company's written content. Yippee! Click To Tweet