July 19, 2024

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Health Can Do

What is a Healthcare Writing Style Guide (& Why You Need One)

10 min read
What is a Healthcare Writing Style Guide (& Why You Need One)

You might remember writing style guides from college. Chicago Manual of Style, Associated Press, Modern Language Association?

Instead of using a generic style guide for content, today’s leading healthcare brands are creating their own, also known as content style guides.

A content style guide is a companion to your brand style guide and helps writers and marketers write on-brand copy for your business.

Here, I share what’s inside this type of guide and provide examples of how it helps produce clear and consistent content across teams and channels. 

What Is a Writing Style Guide?

A writing style guide outlines essential dos and don’ts, giving writers and other key stakeholders a toolkit for creating on-brand content that meets your needs and expectations—while eliminating repetitive or arbitrary edits.

Just like your brand style guide helps people use your logos and brand colors properly, a writing style guide dives even deeper into how to write content for your brand.

This deeper dive includes style choices for everything from the Oxford comma (yes, or no?) to how to spell your business name across various locations.

I say “living document” because your content style guide should never be set in stone. It should be updated, refined, or added to as new preferences are identified.

How It Complements the Brand Style Guide

A brand style guide usually includes the basics of brand messaging (tagline, value proposition, messaging pillars) and essence (voice, tone, and personality).

So, if you haven’t already, creating a foundational brand style guide is essential to cultivating brand recognition.

Let’s dive into the nuts and bolts of a healthcare content style guide tailored for your business.

The Anatomy of a Healthcare Content Style Guide

The Table of Content for a typical style guide might include the following sections:

  • Writing Goals and Principles
  • Voice and Tone
  • Writing About Your Business
  • Grammar Rules and Mechanics
  • Guidelines for Various Types of Content

Here’s what you can include in each of these sections:

Writing Goals and Principles

Identify what you want each piece of published content to achieve for your brand—and how you aim to achieve those goals.

For example, when writing content for the Healthcare Success blog, we aim to educate, guide, and inspire our readers in a friendly and helpful way. To achieve those goals, we work hard to ensure our content is well-researched, relevant, useful, easy to understand, and relatable.

Voice and Tone

If not included in the brand style guide, it’s important to outline your brand’s approved voice and acceptable tone variations. Here are some insights for each:

Voice

Brand voice is the distinct and unique personality your brand uses across all its communications to appeal to its target audience.

Building a consistent brand voice across platforms offers peace of mind and builds trust with your target audience. The best way to outline your brand voice in your content marketing style guide is to provide language and messaging examples that showcase your characteristics, terminology, and brand values.

Here are four easy steps to create a brand voice:

  • Know your target audience and build patient personas
  • Establish your personality traits (e.g., authentic, compassionate, trustworthy, helpful, playful, etc.)
  • Describe what those traits mean to your brand
  • Identify clear do’s and don’ts
Tone

A brand voice never changes. But the tone varies depending on the target persona, the topic, where they are in the buyer’s journey, and which channel they’re on.

For example, when writing copy for your company website, you may opt for a formal tone that conveys warmth, compassion, and understanding. However, when communicating with followers on social media, you may pivot to a more relaxed, informal tone that conveys the same thing.

In both cases, your personality and values remain the same (brand voice), but how you communicate shifts (brand tone).

Writing About Your Business

Every healthcare writing style guide should include a list of dos and don’ts for writing about your business.

This list should include the correct way to refer to your brand (e.g., “Healthcare Success” vs. “Health Care Success, LLC”) and products, how to refer to your target audience (e.g., consumers, clients, or patients), and how to refer to your doctors and specialists.

If your business has multiple locations, you may also include preferred emails and phone numbers for each location.

The University of Utah lays it out succinctly for its primary brand and five hospitals:

Who We Are writing guide

I’d also like to highlight the importance of having clear guidelines for more sensitive businesses, such as addiction centers for alcohol and substance use.

Compassion and healing are paramount when writing content for addiction and recovery centers. Therefore, a medical writing style guide must include a list of words and phrases to avoid (e.g., addict, drug addict, alcoholic, substance abuse, etc.) and identify preferred alternatives (e.g., a person with addiction, addicted person, substance use disorder, etc.).

The National Institutes of Health Style Guide has a comprehensive set of guidelines for this industry:

National Institute of Health writing guide

Grammar Rules and Mechanics

To keep your writing clear and consistent, it’s essential to clearly outline your “house rules” for things like:

  • Active vs. passive voice
    Stress the importance and provide examples of active voice. Share examples of when passive voice may be appropriate.
  • Punctuation
    Did you know that most punctuation rules are style choices? Answer the age-old question of whether or not to use the Oxford comma and include rules for semicolons, ellipses, colons, apostrophes, etc.
  • Capitalization
    Outline your preferences for specialties, illnesses, conditions, positions, or anything that isn’t a proper noun. This is also an excellent place to clarify your intention for words like email, internet, website, etc.
  • Hyphens
    Share whether you want to use an en dash (-) or an em dash (—) in your sentences.
    Also, identify a list of words that should or should not be hyphenated (e.g., long-term, well-being, follow-up, C-section, etc.)
  • Abbreviations and Acronyms
    Keep your expectations clear and consistent for your writers. It’s best practice to spell out acronyms the first time you mention a term in a piece of content, then use the abbreviation for all other references. For example, instead of writing ADHD, spell out attention deficit hyperactivity disorder the first time you use it.
  • Bulleted lists
    Provide guidelines for how to format your bulleted lists. Do you want to include a colon after every introductory sentence? Do you want to add a period at the end of every bulleted list item? Do you want to begin sentence fragments with a capital letter? Outline these preferences to ensure they’re consistent throughout your content.
  • Dates
    Clearly state how you want your dates to be presented to ensure they are consistent across all content types and platforms.
  • Numbers
    Identify whether you will use a % symbol or write the word percentage. Also, clearly state whether you want to use periods, hyphens, or parentheses when writing telephone numbers (e.g., 555.555.5555 vs. (555) 555-5555)

Guidelines for Writing Different Types of Content

A comprehensive writing style guide should include principles for writing different types of content and general guidelines for writing (e.g., keep sentences and paragraphs short, use plain language, etc.).

For example:

Educational Content

This section lays the groundwork for content marketing that educates. It should include the preferred types of educational content your business builds and shares (e.g., eBooks, YouTube videos, webinars, staff training materials, tutorials, and frequently asked questions) and any elements that must be consistent throughout.

Email

When crafting email communications, it’s important to pay attention to detail. In this section, identifying the following elements will help keep your email communications consistent, which helps build trust with your audience:

  • From name: Choose a name that or title that will be recognizable to your audience and keep it consistent across all business communications.
    Subject line: Outline whether all caps or emojis are acceptable and identify the target character length.
  • Preheader text: As with the subject line, it’s important to outline whether all caps or emojis are acceptable and identify the target character length.
  • Body copy: Share your expectations on purpose, length, imagery, and layout.
  • Call to action: Identify specific calls to action and how they’re capitalized (e.g., Schedule an Appointment, Book Online, schedule a visit, etc.).

This guide can also outline approved email signatures for internal and external communications. UCLA Health does a great job of explaining how to create an email signature and what it should look like:

UCLA Health Email Signatures

Social Media

Social media can feel like the Wild West at times. For this reason, it’s essential to lay out guiding principles that will keep your messages clear, consistent, and out of hot water.

First, outline which social media platforms your business will use, their official character limits, and your best practices for each. Next, identify a list of dos and don’ts to keep your content professional (e.g., avoid excessive exclamation points, never ask users to share your content, etc.).

It’s also important to clearly state your hashtag strategy. Include a list of preferred hashtags (and hashtags to avoid), the maximum and minimum number of hashtags each post should include, and whether including trending hashtags is acceptable.

Why Now is the Time to Create a Content Style Guide

Your business needs a comprehensive content style guide to keep content consistent and on-brand across all platforms. This guide is critical for brands looking to scale their business.

This document eliminates guesswork when creating content—from the initial draft to posting online.

Giving executives, account managers, writers, and other content creators a guide that clearly outlines how things should be written or presented helps keep everyone on brand. It also eliminates bottlenecks during each phase of the review and approval process.

Brand consistency also provides a positive user experience for your target audience.

How to Create a Content Style Guide for Healthcare Brands

  1. Peruse other official style guides
    Before you begin writing, review the
    AP Stylebook, Chicago Manual of Style, NIH Style Guide, or other healthcare-specific style guides. They can help you understand what is typically included and identify elements you might want to have.
  2. Develop or build upon your Brand Style Guide
    A brand style guide is a comprehensive set of standards for your business (e.g., brand voice and tone, logo usage, colors, visuals, point of view, etc.).
    1. Develop your brand messaging (what your brand communicates)
    2. Develop your brand voice and tone (how your brand communicates across platforms)
    3. Develop buyer personas (who your brand communicates with)
  3. Understand your content
    Before getting to the writing phase, you need to audit the types of content your organization creates, the formatting principles it follows, and where they’re publishing. From there, you can develop guidelines for blogs, printed materials, social media posts, videos, and the like.
  4. Collaborate with decision-makers
    While the marketing department is the likely owner of this living document, the “owners” must get input from other teams and individuals that may need to refer to it regularly. Some teams and individuals to consider include
    1. Writers and editors,
    2. Design
    3. Social Media
    4. Customer Support
    5. Developers
    6. Partners
  5. Discuss and confirm
    Once you know your content and whom you need to collaborate with, it’s time to begin. Sit down with all concerned parties and make a laundry list of items that need clarification and direction.
    It can be anything regarding content.
    Once you have a comprehensive list of concerns, you can work together to determine and agree on the “standard” for your business and ensure nothing is left out.
  6. Create the content style guide
    Once you understand your content, and content types, and have identified preferences from your key collaborators and decision-makers, it’s time to begin writing.
    1. Create a shareable Word or Google doc
    2. Start with an introduction that explains
      1. The purpose of the content style guide
      2. Whether you prefer AP or Chicago style for anything not listed
      3. This file should be added to as needed to include new or updated preferences
    3. Make it scannable with a table of contents
      1. Address all the rules discussed and finalized in Step 5, ensuring everything is clear, concise, and free from ambiguity.
      2. Include critical sections such as:
        1. Naming conventions for your business (spelling of the business and location names and addresses)
        2. How to write about your products, services, or treatments
        3. Your preferred way of spelling doctor names
        4. Your preferred way of referring to your doctors, clinical and administrative staff
        5. Your preferred way of listing and spelling service lines (e.g., orthopedics or orthopaedics)
        6. Commonly misspelled medical terms relevant to your business
        7. Guidelines for writing different types of content (e.g., educational, email, social, etc.)
    4. Create a vocabulary listInclude correct or preferred spellings for your industry, business, products, and target audience.
  7. Review and distribute
    Once a draft of the guide is complete, get buy-in from all concerned teams. Before publishing and sharing the writing style guide with your teams, review everything again to ensure it is error-free and that everything was noticed.

Now that you know what a content style guide is, why you need one, and how to do it—it’s time to get to work.

When done well, a content style guide is instrumental in producing impactful content that engages high-value patients, builds trust, and persuades them to convert.

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