Why You Need a Style Guide (and a Sample One to Get You Started!)

What’s a style guide?

Style guides, in the most general terms, govern the written content that a brand produces. These documents give guidelines for how written materials should be written, edited and translated. Style guides give recommendations on tone, style, voice, grammar, punctuation and other writing conventions. A strong brand with a cohesive voice will have a style guide to ensure the company materials are consistent from piece to piece.

For translators, they define how you will handle all the little (and big) details that crop up in the course of your work. What format will the date be in? Will this company name get translated or stay in the source language? What about this address? How will the seals, signatures and handwritten notes get translated?

Some clients and agencies will have style guides that they expect you to follow. Other times, it’s up to you to bring up style guides and offer to have the translation follow it. The client may have specific ways they want you to handle things, even if they don’t have a set style guide. Agree on all of this before beginning work.

Why do you need a style guide?

1. Your clients will know what to expect and be happy with your product.

Style guides outline to your clients what they can expect in your translation ahead of time. Since you already defined how you would handle translating specific items, there will be no surprises when the client sees your work. A prepared client helps make for a happy client.

If the client has certain style requests, update your style guide to reflect these wishes before you agree to begin work.

2. You will avoid unnecessary work and potential lost earnings.

Your client may not think they have a style guide – until they get your finished product and start mentioning specific ways they like things to appear. If that’s ever happened to you, you know how frustrating this can be – and also how costly for you.

It’s best to sort this out ahead of time before you do the work. Changing things after the fact may end up costing you time and money for work you can’t bill for.

3. Your materials will be consistent and professional – and you’ll look good.

Style guides give continuity to written materials, both within a single document and across all the documents that a company produces. These guidelines maintain a consistent message and style in your translations. All the materials that you produce will help further that professional brand the company and you have worked so hard to build.

Clients may also be impressed with your professionalism and attention to detail when you present your style guide – especially if they don’t even have one of their own.

Fortune 500 companies use them for their writing – and so should you.

How can you make your own style guide?

Think about the things that are important for someone to expect in a good translation. Imagine what someone unfamiliar with the intricacies of translation may not realize about what you do and how you do it and why.

For instance, do you always leave proper names as they are? Do you have a way to indicate something is text in a seal or a logo? Are there any issues that have come up in the past with clients because there was no agreed-upon convention before you began work? Keep all of these in mind when you write your style guide.

Use the sample one below as a jumping-off point. There are some suggested topics you will likely want to include in yours. And keep in mind that for some of these, there is not a right and wrong way to handle it. The only wrong way would be to not define it ahead of time for your client.

Sample style guide

Date format Define how dates will appear: DD/MM/YYYY? MM/DD/YYYY? Date Month Year? Month Date, Year? Something else?

Generally, you will have the dates match the style used in the location for which you are translating. However, the dates may need to match the style in other documents or software programs, so define this one ahead of time.

For example, you could write:

When source is written in numbers: MM/DD/YYYY

Example: 08/10/14 becomes 10/08/2014

When source is written out: Month DD, YYYY

Example: 10 octobre 2014 becomes October 10, 2014

Acronyms Always state how you’ll handle them if the client doesn’t have a standard method.
Abbreviations Be consistent with whatever you and the client decide. Some clients have specific preferences, and some don’t want any abbreviations.

For example, if you work into English, you could write:

Translated in expanded form with an English abbreviation in parentheses. The English abbreviation with be used thereafter in the event of multiple occurrences.

Proper names Define if proper names, such as company names, will be translated. It’s common not to translate them, but some clients want company names translated, so spell this out ahead of time.
Names of institutions Decide if these get translated or not. Many clients prefer these translated without the source language left in the document, but others want them handled like proper names and left untranslated.
Addresses Figure out what portion, if any, you will translate. These are usually not translated, except for the city and state. However, some clients want everything translated.
Signatures Specify what you will write for signatures.

For example, you can simply write in this part of the guide: Use [Signature]

Some clients have preferences for capitalization and italics and may want something like: [signature], [Signature], [signature] or [Signature]

Stamps Say how you will translate the text in stamps.

For example, you may write:

Use [Stamp: translation of stamp text]

Logo Define how you will indicate that text appears in a logo.

For example, you may write:

Use [Logo: translation of logo text]

Handwritten text Clarify how you will indicate that certain text is handwritten.

For example, you may write:

Use [HW: translation of handwritten text]

Illegible Be sure your client knows what to expect for text that can’t be read.

For example, you may write:

Use [illegible]

PDF files pagination Define if the PDF pages will align between the translation and the source text. A good rule of thumb is to match page for page unless a sentence is split between two pages. In that case, complete the sentence on the initial page, if possible.
Letter spacing State how you will handle spacing for units of measure. Generally, use the accepted conventions in the target language and location, unless the client requests that it appear a different way. Define this ahead of time in case the client needs it in a certain format, because it will be time consuming to change later.

For example, you could state the following here:

No space before degree symbol: 30°C

No space before percentage symbol: 30%

No space after monetary symbol: $100

Add space before units of measurement: 8 mm, 8 in.

Conversion of measurements Specify this before you begin working – it’s going to be complicated to change later.

For example, you could write:

Measurements are not converted unless there is reason to believe the target audience will not be familiar with the source measurement system (usually metric).

Existing English in source If you work into English, define if you will retype this and if it’s paid. Not clarifying ahead of time can cause problems when you submit your invoice.

For example, you can simply write “Rekey” in this part of the guide.

Fax headers/footers State how you typically handle this.

For example, you might write:

Rekey/translate as appropriate unless otherwise indicated.

The bottom line

Remember that like any other set of guidelines, a style guide is a living document. It will change over time. You’ll find topics you need to include and others may need to be refined.

Update your style guide to reflect the changes in how you work – just be sure clients have the most current copy you will be using for your projects.

Armed with a strong style guide, you’ll have a smoother time negotiating projects and producing quality work for which you will be appropriately paid.


Melissa Kamenjarin

Author: Melissa Kamenjarin

Melissa is a Success by Rx copywriter and Spanish/English translator, writer, editor and proofreader specializing in educational materials, health insurance, non-profits, and published fiction and non-fiction books, blogs and websites. Melissa is the Secretary and blog writer for ATISDA (Association of Translators and Interpreters in the San Diego Area). An American Translators Association (ATA) member, she is also the Copy Editor for the ATA Medical Division’s publication, Caduceus.

Posted in Business, Productivity.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *