Why an editorial style guide is critical for higher education marketing

Why an editorial style guide is critical for higher education marketing

Universities are becoming increasingly aware of the need to manage their brand across diverse departments, programmes, and divisions. More and more, there are written guidelines governing how to use the logo, fonts, or colours, but the words themselves often fall through the cracks. Yet an editorial style guide is a critical part of ensuring that the brand is being portrayed consistently and correctly. Editorial style guides are important for any institution, as inconsistency (not to mention errors!) can imply a lack of professionalism or quality.

Editorial style guides are even more important when looking to recruit international students, who represent a variety of linguistic backgrounds and have varying degrees of familiarity with higher education terminology in British and/or American English. But what is an editorial style guide?

A style guide for writing can be as short as one page of highlights about tone, grammar, and spelling – or as long as a book. It prevents everyone from simply doing whatever ‘feels right’ when writing or editing text. The goal of an editorial style guide is to help maintain a professional image and clear messaging. It also saves time in the long term, helping avoid lengthy conversations amongst co-workers about when to abbreviate something or where to use a comma.

English is a very flexible language and there are many choices that need to be made within a range of acceptable options. For example, will you refer to a professor as ‘Dr Sample Lastname’, ‘Professor Sample Lastname’, ‘Sample Lastname’, or something entirely different? And what about after you’ve mentioned them one time? Do they become ‘Lastname’, ‘Dr Lastname’, or ‘Professor Lastname’? This may all seem very nit-picky, but there are institutions that write their own university names in ways that are so different from each other that it would be impossible for international prospects to understand that they’re still talking about the same place!

Divided by a common language

On top of needing a style guide to keep everything looking professional and on-brand, there are huge differences between British and American English when it comes to higher education terminology. This can present a challenge for the many people who will write the text that your linguistically diverse international prospects read.

In order to avoid confusion, we most often recommend a form of ‘global’ English that avoids highly specific terms such as ‘dorms’ or ‘halls’ in favour of more easy to understand ‘student accommodations’. Consistency is actually the most important thing, and what you definitely don’t want is one page on your website to talk about how to apply to ‘halls’ and another page that talks about safety issues in the ‘dorms’. This is where it gets confusing for everyone.

Creating your own style guide

A good place to start is to pick one of the existing style guides such as Chicago Manual of Style for American English or the New Oxford Style Manual for British English. This can be the back-up that you use for lots of nit-picky questions that grammaticians love to argue about! As a next step, institutions (or programmes, departments, etc) should create a written style guide that at the very least covers:

  • Tone
  • Style
  • Grammar
  • Spelling and abbreviations of commonly-used terms

Any university doing international recruitment in a language other than their own should also develop a list of key translations so that the names of academic programmes, titles of academic and administrative staff, names of departments, etc, stay consistent in the other language as well.

When describing something like tone, it’s helpful to show examples (particularly in the ‘this and not that’ format) because ‘formal’ or ‘friendly’ may mean totally different things to different people. The very process of creating a style guide can bring up differences of opinion so that a decision can be made – and the style guide should be a living document so that occasional changes can be made as needed.

University style guide examples

If you search for “university editorial style guide”, you will find that a lot of institutions put these online. This can be a great place for you to find the right format for your purposes – and that format should always be the one that most people are likely to use.

New York University has the NYU Identity Language Guide, which covers everything from how to adjust your tone for the right audience and purpose to when to use a comma – and a lot about how to keep the voice on-brand. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has a much shorter Voice and Writing Style Guide that focuses entirely on tone with tips like this: “In writing content, keep in mind these personalities: a professor whose sense of humor is on par with her intellect, or a Nobel Prize winner who is down-to-earth and candid”.

For British English, Imperial College London has a section on Writing style as part of their Brand and style guide, and Oxford University offers downloadable PDF versions of their Style Guide, Glossaries, and a one-page version for the highlights only. Both of these – with their focus on the kind of nit-picky details that editors love – are probably more useful for proof-readers than marketers, but they are great places to get ideas of the kinds of terms and topics to cover.

Distributing and promoting your style guide

Any style guide is only helpful if people actually use it. That means that it should be easy to access (hence the large number of institutions with it online) and that you may need to become an evangelist or advocate for this if you think it’s important but aren’t actually the boss of everyone writing for the institution. One useful way to win over doubters is to show how many institutions – particularly your competitors – do have an online style guide for communications. It can also be a helpful motivation if any of your research with international students or prospects shows that they are confused by the language on your website or in your brochures – which is very often the case.

Go forth and edit

Once you have the editorial style guide, it can take a long time until everything starts to really follow the guidelines – and no university has 100% compliance. The goal is to have it as a reference for people who want to improve their writing for prospects – and to improve your international recruitment results overall.

Megan is Director and Founder of The Brenn-White Group, an agency based in New York City that provides marketing, strategy and editorial services that help universities reach international audiences.