Think of style as the overall personality of your writing. It’s the way something is written as opposed to what it means. It includes everything from tone of voice to sentence length, and yes, it also includes whether or not you use the serial comma.
Style is not a matter of right or wrong. (Grammar, on the other hand, most often is.) Style is about being right for the particular context. In the bigger picture of your overall brand, this means remaining true to your brand identity so that you can tell your story consistently across channels.
Here’s the key to style in quality content: be consistent. Once you’ve chosen your style, your choice to use friendly, informal language and no serial comma (or the exact opposite) should carry through every sentence you write.
The big picture: your brand
It’s as important to define and document your overall brand voice as it is to decide on a logo, color palette and image style. While individual pieces of content will vary somewhat depending on context (things like message, intended audience and distribution channel — more on that later), all should adhere to an overall brand style that orients your audience and lets them know the message is coming from you.
When defining your brand style, keep in mind these elements:
Tone of voice
If your brand were a person, how would you describe its personality? Reserved or carefree? Professional and subdued or hip and maybe a little sassy? The way you respond will determine whether your brand voice is formal and business-like or conversational and friendly or something a little more unique. Defining this will help you know how to convey your message every time you sit down to write.
Diction is a fancy word for word choice. Do you use heady, complex words or simple, clear language? (We recommend the latter when it comes to content marketing and web writing.) It also pertains to whether you use technical language or lay terms when describing a complex or industry-specific topic. This depends on your audience. (Case in point: you wouldn’t use the word diction unless crafting a piece aimed at writers.)
Sentence length and flow
Are your sentences winding and complex or crisp, clean and to-the-point? Good content marketing and web writing is clear, concise and compelling. If your work is more academic or artistic, it may be fine to wander a bit. Be consistent in your approach and have a reason for taking it.
When crafting sentences, bear in mind the overall flow of a paragraph and their relation to the entire piece. You don’t want every sentence to be so clipped that you start to sound staccato. Vary sentence length (some short, some longer) to keep a good rhythm. It helps with readability.
Some grammar rules are hard and fast and not to be messed with, and others are a question of — you guessed — style. It includes whether or not your brand uses the serial comma in its communications. (I am personally in the serial comma camp; Suite Seven is not. When I write for Suite Seven, I omit the serial comma.) It includes style choices on certain words, such as whether you say home page or homepage, web site or website.
When it comes to grammatical style, the big rule is to be consistent.
Defining your brand’s overall writing style and tone of voice takes some work upfront, and it’s best captured in a style guide that’s maintained over time.
The nitty gritty: individual pieces of content
Style depends on context — this is even more critical when considering how to craft an individual piece of content. You stay true to your overall brand style and voice when crafting each of these messages. But an email on policy changes should be a little more formal, while a Tweet, Facebook message or email announcing a new product line can be friendly and excited. The main purpose of the former is to inform, while the main purpose of the latter is to generate buzz.
When fine-tuning the style of a single piece of content, keep in mind:
- The main purpose of the content. Are you trying to inform, excite, increase credibility, push to purchase/act?
- What action do you want the reader to take?
- The distribution channel — email, social media, print ad, infographic, blog.
- How quickly do you want readers to glean the pertinent information? Is your message better served by a bulleted list or long-form content?
As with overall style, it’s critical to keep in mind the context in which your content will be read. It will help you craft a successful message. Just don’t lose site of the bigger picture: your brand voice and style should never take a back seat to the needs of a single content item.
You want to stay true to your overall brand identity so that you can tell your story consistently across channels and reinforce your larger story.