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Are Style Guides Relevant in a Digital Age?

The wide world web has and continues to have, a significant impact on our language and how we communicate. You may be forgiven for questioning whether an editorial style guide is still relevant in the digital age. In short, the answer is yes. You could say the rapid evolution of words is even more of a reason to develop an editorial style guide, as it can provide direction on communicating effectively in a modern environment. 

With frequent changes to how, why and the way we communicate, an editorial style guide is a constant company-wide reference for employees of all levels to understand the best way to communicate. From the evolution of language right through to inclusivity and accessibility, we explore the role of an editorial style guide in the digital age. 

Evolution of language 

Over time, most things will evolve – even language – and this has been happening since before the introduction of the internet. Consider Shakespearean times and how vastly different our modern application of language is today.

The meanings of words have and continue to change. Consider the term naughty, for example. In the 1300s, naughty people had naught (nothing); they were poor or needy. By the 1400s, the meaning shifted from having nothing to being worth nothing, being morally bad or wicked.

These examples aside, the internet is contributing to a more rapid evolution of language. ‘Netspeak’, as it is commonly referred to, has introduced new features that are now commonplace in writing, like hashtags and emojis.

In 2015 (eons ago now!), the hashtag was even named the UK Children’s word of the year. It is often used as a way of emphasising speech. Then there are the acronyms or digital slang, which we touched on briefly above. YOLO, bae, OMG, and SMH have evolved from the basic IRL and ASL, which was the most common digital slang of the early noughties. 

Style guides in the digital age

When developing a company-wide editorial style guide, it’s worth considering the role (if any) these slang terms or symbols play in your communications. While it’s easy to dismiss them altogether and perhaps consider these terms exclusive, it comes down to who you’re trying to communicate with. If your primary target audience is Gen Z, you may risk not engaging them if you don’t use their language style. In saying that, don’t forget about authenticity. If you’re a fifty-year-old man writing ‘slay all day,’ you also risk alienating your audience as it may be perceived as ‘put on’ instead of a natural way of communicating. 

It’s also important to recognise that your guide must be reviewed regularly. On average, we suggest every six to twelve months. However, that may vary depending on the industry you work within. For example, if you work in pop culture, fashion, or beauty, language seems to shift and change even more quickly. 

Want more? Read ‘What is an Editorial Style Guide and Why Should You Invest in One?

Inclusivity and accessibility

Before the widespread use of the Internet, a company would use platforms like newspapers, magazines, billboards, or even old-school snail mail to communicate externally. In each of these examples, the audience is relatively controlled and, to some extent, predictable. If, for example, you put up a billboard in Ballarat – located in regional Victoria – you could safely assume the primary audience exposed to the advertisement is fluent in English and would understand Aussie vernacular. 

With internet discourse, you can reach people far and wide. This means you need to consider inclusivity and accessibility. While it may be impossible to communicate in a way that everyone understands, language, demographic and cultural barriers can be considered when developing an editorial style guide for the digital age. 

Annie Howard explained in a piece for Slate, “linguistic mutations continue to remake conversation daily, underpinned by an overreliance on English.”

When writing for a digital space, you may want to consider:

  • Avoiding slang. 
  • Avoiding unnecessary acronyms or specialist terms. If and when these are used, provide a glossary link or description. 
  • In the digital age, there are widely used acronyms that people may assume everyone knows and uses. For example, LOL (laugh out loud). These acronyms may not be as widely used in some demographics, so you may want to consider directing people as to how and when they should use these acronyms. 
  • Avoiding age-specific terms in a derogatory manner. For example, using boomer, Susan, or Karen as descriptive terms. 
  • Avoiding unnecessary gender-specific language, or at least acknowledging there are more than two genders. 
  • Considering the use of fonts. While text styling is often the work of a designer, there are some instances where documents may be disseminated without a design overview. In this situation, it’s important to consider the type of font and the size of the text to ensure that you’re considering those with a visual impairment. 

The platform you are writing for

Often, you’ll hear people refer to the need to write ‘consistently’. However, that doesn’t mean you have to write the same way for every platform or purpose. 

How you write an email to someone you know versus how you write to someone you have never met is likely to vary. This is the same when you think of writing a social media caption for your workplace versus an annual report. While both forms of writing should have a similar approach, the tone may be more conversational and relaxed on social media. 

Think of the two examples presented. In one instance, you are developing a report which doesn’t encourage a two-way dialogue. On the other hand, social media is about just that – being social. So, you will likely want to adopt a more friendly, relaxed version of your brand voice. 

While it’s easy to dismiss the importance of an editorial style guide in a digital age, it’s evident they still have an important role to play. A detailed guide can give all team members greater confidence to communicate in a constantly evolving and changing space. They also encourage writers to consider the audiences they are speaking to and how they could potentially receive the message.

If you’re considering developing an editorial style guide or looking for a refresher feel free to get in touch to see how we can help.

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