Illustration of a multi-colored wave pouring into a style guideBefore writing for any new client or project, one of the first things I check is the organization’s style guide. (It’s also one of the first things our client services managers and project managers share with the writing team!)

Why is that style guide so important? Because it allows me to write in a voice that’s true to the healthcare organization for which I’m writing. Not only does it tell me the big stuff: Oxford comma or AP style? Is healthcare one word or two? The components of a style guide should also shine a light on their brand voice, character, and value statements. And in today’s competitive marketplace, a unique brand is just one way to stand out in the crowd.

Why are style guides important for healthcare organizations?

Style guides provide critical information to your writing team: Everything from grammar to punctuation to your organization’s unique preferences and brand voice. These components of a style guide build consistency, which brings benefits including:

  • It allows everyone on the writing team to be on the same page and create a unified personality (so to speak) for your healthcare organization.
  • It draws a line from one experience to the next for patients — something that helps your organization build trust and relationships.
  • It helps save time on editing and sending back drafts that aren’t nailing brand voice or following your organization’s grammar rules.

Essential elements of a style guide

The first step in creating your style guide is to get buy-in from all the people who will use it. That includes writers, editors and your brand team. After all, your style guide sets the tone and benchmarks for how and what your organization communicates. As I mentioned before, that includes grammar, writing style and brand.

Pull a group together and make a rough sketch of what to include in the style guide. A great place to start is to think about the common mistakes or inconsistencies you see from your writing team. (Are some writers using dietitian, but others are using dietician?) Remember, your style guide doesn’t need to be a comprehensive listing of all the basic grammar rules your team should follow. It just needs to focus on what’s unique to your organization’s style and brand.

Here’s a quick cheat sheet of some of our favorite (and most helpful) components of a style guide.

Naming conventions

Everyone in your department may know the names of each campus, clinic or location, but what about partners outside your team? Sometimes, shorthand used internally can be confusing for external (and internal) groups.

Build consistency — and awareness — by capturing how you’ll list each location, clinic or department on first and subsequent references.

Unique grammar and punctuation styles

It can be overwhelming to think of listing every single grammar or AP style rule your team follows. Start by focusing on what’s unique to your organization and link out to resources, like the AP Stylebook website, and encourage writers to double-check their work. A few things I’ve noticed that can change between organizations (and items I’m constantly checking) include:

  • Titles: How do organizations refer to physicians and other degrees? Does M.D. have periods or no periods? Is a Ph.D. listed as “Dr.” on the second reference?
  • Departments: How do they list and spell service lines? Is it orthopedics or orthopaedics?
  • Punctuation: What’s their take on the serial (Oxford) comma, the use of en and em dashes, and periods after bullet points?

Brand voice

Brand voice is a key component of your organization’s style guide. It is the final piece of the puzzle; it outlines how to communicate, not just what to say. Consider: What do writers and editors need to know? Logo and colors may not be relevant, but writers and editors need details on voice and tone.

Use examples

Examples are a key component of a style guide. They can help bring your brand voice and tone to life. After all, “compassionate” can mean different things to different writers. Another helpful tool I’ve found in style guides is a list of words to use or avoid. That may include calling “providers” clinicians or avoiding the term “multidisciplinary.” 

One of our clients, Anne Arundel Medical Center, recently went through a rebranding when they joined forces with another regional health system. Now they are Luminis Health. Their style guide includes helpful information on how to bring that new brand to life. It has specific phrases and words centered around their brand story: igniting a new era in care.

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Ensuring success with your style guide

Once you’re confident your team has included all the essential components of a style guide, there’s still work to be done. Luckily, you’ve done the hard part! Now it’s time to make sure your team knows how to use the guide, where to find it and that it’s serving as the resource you’ve intended.

Here are three more steps to wrap up creating the perfect style guide for your organization.

Train your team

When the style guide is complete, spend some time sharing it with the people who will use it. That includes internal stakeholders and external partners (like WriterGirl!). Training doesn’t have to be a formal or stuffy affair, either. Schedule a quick meeting with your colleagues to go over what the style guide covers and why it’s important to follow.

Training for external partners can be as simple as an email that includes any highlights of the guide — such as common mistakes, quirky rules or key points about brand voice.

Make it accessible

Your style guide should be easy-to-find and easy-to-use. Post it on the intranet and make sure writers and editors have it bookmarked. Work with developers to make it searchable. And most importantly, make it scannable! After all, writers are readers too. You want them to be able to quickly find answers to their questions about your organization’s style.

Update regularly

A style guide should change and evolve just like your organization does. Create a timeline and process for reviewing and updating your organization’s style guide. Maybe that’s quarterly, every six months or (at a minimum) once a year.

Once your team reviews and updates it, don’t forget to share out those updates!  A quick email to writers and editors highlighting the changes (and why they were made) can help keep everyone on the same page.

So, are you ready to tackle your organization’s style guide? If you’re still not sure where to start or are feeling overwhelmed, remember to start with the basics. You can add more information to your style guide as you and your team work through what best represents your organization and its brand.

Need help creating your style guide? WriterGirl has a team of healthcare writers who can help you execute all areas of your content strategy, so you don’t have to face your marketing goals alone. Contact us any time to learn more.