Publishing content is a great way to drive traffic to your website. However, maintaining a consistent and engaging writing style can be a challenge. That’s where editorial style guidelines come in handy. Think of them as the roadmap that ensures your blog’s content stays on track, no matter who’s writing it.
“It is one of the basic building blocks of great content that pays off big-time,” says Kaleigh Moore. She is a seasoned content writer for SaaS companies like Shopify — and she’s right.
Style guidelines play a pivotal role in establishing crucial brand consistency.
This article offers ten actionable steps to creating an editorial style guide. It includes examples from brands like Mailchimp, Buffer, and Salesforce.
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What is an editorial style guideline?
An editorial style guideline is a simple document. It explains the rules writers must follow to ensure a website’s content remains consistent.
Editorial style guidelines include details on the following:
- Grammar and spelling
- Formatting — typography and punctuation
- Brand personality — voice and tone
- Citation — stats, facts, and sources
- Writing for specific channels like email or social media
- Writing for specific purposes (i.e., educational or legal)
- Use of appropriate words while writing for accessibility or inclusivity
Why editorial style guidelines are essential
These standards are essential if your team wants to scale content production without losing brand identity. They ensure that multiple contributors can write in a way that reflects your brand values, identity, and tone of voice.
The bottom line is simple: consistent brands are worth 20% more than brands that aren’t.
Cut onboarding time for new writers
Imagine that each time you hired a new writer, you spent a whole week editing an article they drafted. An editorial style guideline provides clear instructions to improve the quality of drafts. It helps with optimizing content planning and approval processes. And reduces the timeframe from drafting to publishing.
Improves the efficiency of the whole team
An editorial style guide makes sure that your writers and editors can collaborate better. Writers know the standards to follow, and editors spend less time correcting mistakes. By using editorial style guidelines, you can avoid the friction caused by unnecessary errors.
A brand without an editorial style guide will likely produce subpar content. A style guide keeps your team in check and shows professionalism.
Protects brand reputation
Many brands don’t take note of this, but a slight misuse of words can trigger your audience. It can also lead to a call-out on social media, which may ruin your brand’s reputation.
Recently, an author called out the New Yorker on Twitter. She flagged inappropriate words used to address people with disabilities. She also shared editorial guides that included proper terminologies.
The essential themes of editorial style guidelines
To ensure that your content is coherent and reflects your brand personality, include the following five elements in your style guidelines:
1. Brand voice and tone
This element outlines the brand’s voice and preferred tone for different contexts. It’s essential for building a connection with your audience.
Will you be weird and witty while prioritizing clarity like Mailchimp? Or would you prefer to use an authoritative and assertive tone that drives leads like HubSpot? For example, Salesforce states that how they talk to readers doesn’t sound like enterprise software documentation but more like a conversation with your buddy.
Including a section for brand voice and tone guides writers on how exactly they should speak to the target audience.
2. Grammar and spelling
This section provides grammar and spelling rules for writers. It prevents them from submitting articles full of grammatical errors and typos.
The good news is that you don’t have to start from scratch when laying out grammar rules. Instead, you can refer to popular style guides appropriate for your industry.
The Microsoft Style Guide may be an ideal reference for software technical writing. In contrast, the American Medical Association’s Manual of Style is probably more appropriate for healthcare.
Also, note that different countries, such as Britain, Australia, and the US, have different spellings for certain words. For example, “color” vs. “colour” or “personalize” vs. “personalise.” You’ll need to specify whether writers should use American, UK, or Commonwealth English.
3. Formatting, typography, and punctuation
Whether to use the Oxford comma tends to cause hot debate among editors and writers. In this section, you’ll end that debate by clearly stating whether writers should use the Oxford comma (spoiler alert – you should always use the Oxford comma).
You’ll also include:
- Specifics on preferred fonts and standards for headings, capitalization, italics, and quotations
- Details on how to structure content and subheadings
- Basic number guidelines and how to write large numbers
- What sentence case to use for certain acronyms or words (e.g., capitalize the first letter of proper nouns or proper names)
- Examples to help writers contextualize the rules you’ve laid out. You could mention using lowercase when a proper noun becomes a common noun through generalization (e.g., “I googled it”)
- Rules for subsequent references to avoid unnecessary repetition and ensure that later references aren’t ambiguous. Emphasize the correct use of abbreviation, acronym, pronoun, or last name for additional references
4. Images and multimedia
This section contains information on the type of images or videos to include in your content and how to format each one. Using these guidelines, your content team can maintain a consistent visual identity.
These questions can help you identify what to address in this section:
- Are you creating images and graphics in-house, or do you outsource and link to the source?
- How should writers cite image sources?
- Are stock images allowed?
- Do you allow GIFs?
5. Inclusivity and accessibility
It’s important to have a section that covers diversity, accessibility, and inclusion. It’s essential if you’re creating for a global audience. Keeping diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and accessibility front of mind for your content team ensures your audience (regardless of race, gender, disability, etc.) feels your brand sees and cares about people like them.
Mailchimp created a guide for writing about people and conditions. It includes things to say and not to say in your content.
This section of your style guide should cover:
- Use of photos and images for people of all races, ages, and abilities
- Pronoun usage and gender-inclusive language
- The right use of words and terminologies while addressing a situation.
10 simple steps to creating a useful editorial style guideline
An editorial style guideline doesn’t need to be a 5,000-word tome. It should be a simple, easy-to-understand document. You can create this with your editorial team or other key stakeholders.
Start with a notebook, pen, or a fresh Google Doc, and follow these ten steps.
1. Research other style guides and gather ideas
Companies like Mailchimp, Buffer, Atlassian, and Salesforce have publicly accessible style guides. These are good resources to explore before working on your guide.
Gather ideas on how to structure your guide and what information is relevant to include.
Good frameworks already exist, so you can adapt and refine them to fit your brand. For example, the diversity and inclusion section of Buffer’s style guide credits Mailchimp with the rules on writing about people. In a similar fashion, you can use existing guides as inspiration to get through this process.
2. Define your brand personality
Your brand personality expresses your brand’s distinctive character. It specifies who you are and how you speak and relate to your audience. It also determines how you craft your brand messaging for marketing purposes.
The purpose of defining your brand personality is to identify your communication style. It shows where you fall between fun and serious or formal and informal.
3. Describe your target audience
Be specific about who you’re writing for and provide guidelines for writers to tailor their content to that audience.
Here are a few ground rules to give writers a general idea of who they’re writing for:
- Don’t be vague by stating you write for “CEOs.” Instead, add more context like “IT experts in marketing technology companies.”
- Mention your audience’s key pain points and level of expertise.
- Share the topics your audience is most interested in.
- Provide information on how your audience prefers to consume content.
These details will help writers better understand who their readers are. It’ll also guide them on how to craft content that resonates with them.
4. Create a table of contents
Even if your style guide is only a few pages long, including a table of contents is essential. It gives an overview of what your guide covers. It also makes it easy for anyone reading it to skip to specific sections. It’s especially helpful if they refer to the document often.
A table of contents also helps you outline the necessary sections you’ll need to cover. It can be as simple as Atlassian’s or as detailed as Microsoft’s. What matters is that you cover all the necessary information.
5. List out voice and tone guidelines
Draw from the brand personality that you defined earlier to describe what your brand should sound like. Provide guidance on how to use that tone and voice consistently across all content.
Voice and tone are essential for creating a connection with your audience. But, sometimes, it’s difficult to explain the right way to use both. Companies like Salesforce do a good job of explaining this in their guidelines.
According to Buffer’s guide, “Voice is constant. Tone is fluid.” The brand’s voice and tone reflect this. “Buffer’s voice is relatable, approachable, genuine, and inclusive.” “Buffer’s tone varies based on the situation. We let empathy inform our tone.”
Once you’ve described your voice and tone, provide writers with examples of using both in different scenarios.
Here are some ways to cite tone-of-voice examples for writers to follow.
(Screenshots provided by Author)
6. Outline standards for grammar, spelling, and formatting
Specify the grammar, punctuation, spelling, acronyms, abbreviations, and contractions guidelines. Let writers know if and how to use humor, slang, or technical jargon.
Don’t leave room for guessing and assumptions.
- Outline rules with examples. Tell writers if you want them to use camelcase spellings. E.g., ecommerce instead of eCommerce or e-commerce.
- If you use American English instead of British, mention that.
- Provide guidance on how to write numbers (e.g., “1,000” instead of “1000”) and include the format for date and time.
- Emphasize how writers should use titles and headings.
- Mention how to structure different types of sentences. Also, include the proper way to introduce a direct quotation in sentences.
- Outline the preferred style for capitalization. E.g., an official title (Head of Sales), formal titles (Dr, Mrs), or academic degrees (Bachelor of Science)
- Also, mention where using first names in subsequent references is acceptable. Or if the rule for later reference applies to headlines.
- State whether to use hyphenated vs. non-hyphenated versions of words. For example, compound nationalities such as “African American” or “African American founder” aren’t hyphenated.
- Outline the standards for specific channels like email or social media and particular purposes like educational or legal. Mailchimp, for example, includes detailed guidelines on how to write email newsletters, social media, and educational content.
7. Emphasize how to cite sources and link to external content
Outline how you want writers to cite stats, facts, and sources. This includes specific preferences for crediting and captioning images, videos, or gifs.
- Include a list of competitors you don’t want writers to reference.
- Clearly state if you want writers to avoid linking to stats over a certain age, e.g., over three years old.
- Mention if you prefer paraphrasing words shared by experts or quoting experts directly.
- List out credible sources of insight that you approve of.
Emphasize how to cite sources and link to external content. This is important for ensuring that your content is credible and for giving credit to other sources. This is especially important in SaaS marketing, where you may be sharing information about your competitors’ products or services.
8. Specify inclusive and accessible language
Illustrate inclusive language and guidelines for making content accessible to people with disabilities.
Share examples or resources for writers who want to learn more about accessible and inclusive language. Some good references are the Disability Language Style Guide or Mailchimp’s guide on writing for accessibility.
9. Edit and proofread your guide
By the time you get to this step, you should have a working document ready for distribution. However, just before you publicize your guide, get feedback from your team or someone else who can review it with fresh eyes. Once you’ve gotten feedback and corrected errors or omissions, that’s it! Your style guide is ready.
Create a primary file and another copy for distribution. Use your preferred collaboration tool (Notion, Google Docs, or Dropbox) for storage. Also, ensure that everyone who needs it can get easy access.
You can also include a TL;DR section summarizing your guide for people wanting to get the gist before diving deeper. Several tools are available to help you summarize long-form content quickly and easily.
10. Review and update regualrly
Like a content marketing strategy, reviewing and refreshing editorial style guidelines is vital. It should always reflect changes in your brand, industry, or audience.
As your brand evolves, ask questions regularly and update your guidelines as needed.
- “Has any information in this style guide changed?”
- “What can we add or remove to improve our content performance?”
- “What priorities should be in the updated version?”
Ideally, you should do this annually. Invite team members to help or outsource to an agency or experienced freelancer.
Editorial style guidelines: Key takeaways
- The best style guides are clear, concise, and easy to understand. Don’t bore your team with a bulky document they’re reluctant to open and follow.
- Host your style guide on a platform like Notion or Google Drive that everyone can access easily at any time.
- Pay attention to the essential elements and include adequate information.
- Add images and examples to make it easier for writers to understand context and technique.
- A style guide shouldn’t remain stagnant for years. Your content manager or editor should update it as the brand evolves.
Conclusion: Make your writing team more efficient
To produce effective content at scale, set standards for repeatable processes. This positions your team to function like a well-oiled machine. With editorial style guidelines, your writers and editors can work efficiently to create great content.
Completing your style guide makes it easier to onboard new writers. It also simplifies the process of outsourcing content marketing to a reliable agency.
See how Codeless enables fast-growing brands like Zapier, Robinhood, and monday.com to deliver SERP-topping content by leveraging style guides and its stable of seasoned writers, copyeditors, and SEO experts.