Content creation is critical to your inbound marketing success, but as your volume of written content increases, inconsistencies are also bound to arise. Whether due to lack of clarity in your own head about the style of your writing, or disjointed communication across the content creators in your organization, failure to decide upon and document accepted editorial guidelines is a recipe for inconsistent messaging and an incoherent brand experience.
That's why most companies that rely on content as a central part of their marketing strategy develop an editorial style guide. When creating an editorial style guide, you're not discussing the operations of content creation -- like editorial calendaring or search engine optimization of content -- nor are you going into the detail of a brand style guide like the nitty gritty on visual style and use of your logo. Instead, your editorial style guide will focus writers by providing a set of standards that they must adhere to when creating content for your website, eliminating confusion, guess work, and debates over what boils down to a matter of editorial opinion among grammar and content geeks.
By putting in effort up front to creating your editorial style guide, you'll save time spent answering the same questions over and over; get new hires and guest contributors on the same page more quickly; and publish content that is consistent in tone, quality, and presentation, reflecting a more professional brand experience. Now let's break down, page by page, exactly what information to include in a comprehensive editorial style guide so you can go create one for your company.
Section 1: Grammar
Decide which established style manual you will follow. Most businesses adopt either the AP Stylebook, or the Chicago Manual of Style. You can purchase online subscriptions to these manuals for your employees to reference, the login for which you should also include in this section of the editorial style guide to make access simple. You might find employees are more likely to reference these tools when provided with an online subscription that contains a search function, instead of a paper book through which they have to flip to find their answers.
These style guides provide a good basis for basic grammar rules, but you'll also probably want to make some exceptions to the rules for the sake of branding and style. The grammar section of your editorial style guide is where you should outline those exceptions and also highlight some of the most common rules that writers should commit to memory when writing for your company (regardless of whether it is aligned with or against AP or Chicago style). For example:
- What do you capitalize? Do you capitalize the name of your product? Are there certain prepositions you want capitalized in your title despite your style book's recommendations?
- What do you abbreviate? Would you type "a.k.a." or "aka"?
- Do you use an Oxford comma?
- How do you spell words in your industry that don't have a definitive spelling? Is it "ebook", "Ebook", or "e-book"? What about "website" versus "web site"?
Listing answers to common questions like these in the first part of your editorial style guide will give people an easy resource to reference that saves you time and encourages consistency. Add to this list as more confusions arise and get resolved during the content creation process. You're creating your own style guide, so feel free to borrow different rules from different style guides. The important thing is that you use the same rules consistently throughout all the content you create.
Section 2: Style and Tone
This section of the editorial style guide should address issues less concrete than grammar rules but arguably the most important in your editorial style guide: how your content should sound to the reader. Can writers use the first person? How do you feel about the use of industry jargon? Think about the words you would use to describe your content in an ideal world. Which of these adjectives do you want your content to evoke?
You might think you want your content to be all of the above, but force yourself to prioritize just a few, explain why it's important to achieve this style and tone in your content, and provide examples of content (excerpts are fine) that achieves your intended style. If there are stylistic characteristics your content absolutely should not have, this is the section in which to include that information, too. When deciding on style and tone, be sure to consider your target audience and buyer personas in the process. Which style and tone would resonate best with them?
Section 3: Personas
This section occurs after the Style and Tone section of the editorial style guide, because understanding your target audience helps clarify for the writer the style and tone for which you're striving. The two are so intertwined that it would also be acceptable to place this as the second section in your editorial style guide, and move Style and Tone to the third section.
Whichever way you choose, know that the personas in your editorial style guide don't need to go as in depth as the personas you hand to your sales and marketing team. Those might include detailed information like objections that arise in the sales process and how to overcome them, and tips on identifying these personas "in the wild" or when you get them on the phone. These personas should be more succinct, pulling out the highlights from your in-depth marketing personas that concisely explain who your target audience is, their pain points, the value your company provides, how they like to be communicated with, and a picture to give writers a visual to keep in mind when creating content.
If your writers understand your target audience, many questions that would normally arise during content creation are easily answered with common sense based on their knowledge of your readers.
Section 4: Content Structure
Content can adopt many structures, not all of which may be right for your audience; your editorial style guide should outline which are appropriate and encouraged for your website. This will be particularly important if you outsource content creation or rely on many contributors to keep your business blog running. Consider these possible content structures when deciding the acceptable forms your content can take:
- How-To Guides
- Top Lists
- Debates Over Controversial Topics
- Serialized Content
- Product, Service, or Content Reviews
- Pro/Con lists
- Video Content
- Audio Content
As with the common grammatical errors and exceptions in the first section of your editorial style guide, you will probably encounter new content formats that you want to include on this list. Continue to edit this section as you understand which content formats perform well (or underperform) and are an important (or harmful) part of your content strategy.
Section 5: Graphics and Formatting
Like your personas, this section should be broad and succinct in the editorial style guide; you can create a separate brand style guide that goes into more detail on the visual elements associated with your brand. You should, however, delineate visual details that are common to the content creation process.
- Outline from where writers can source images and how to attribute that source within the content -- should they link to it at the bottom of their content, include an image caption, or work in the artist credit within the copy?
- When should images align to the right, to the left, or in the center?
- Should text wrap around images?
- What are the RGB and hex codes for your text and headers?
- What typeface should be used?
- Can writers use italics, bolding, or underlining? If so, is usage limited to certain occasions, like bolding headings and hyperlinks?
- What kind of bullets should be used -- square, round, or other -- and how do they align with the rest of your text?
- How should numbered lists appear -- "1", "1." or "1.)"?
Many of these graphical elements can be preset in your content management system (CMS), but they can also be easily overridden when writers copy and paste content from elsewhere with formatting attached or by an overzealous writer with a flair for design. Outline these core expectations in your editorial style guide, and refer those with more advanced needs to your brand style guide.
Section 6: Approved and Unapproved Content
Great content often cites research and data from third party sources. Make your writer's job easier by providing approved industry resources from which they can draw, and even more importantly, resources from which they cannot draw. Break up this section of your editorial style guide into two sections: recommended and approved industry resources, and "do not mentions."
The information in the "do not mention" section should include competitors and unreliable resources, but it should also mention controversial topics and opinions that should be avoided at all costs. For example, many companies strictly prohibit any mention of politics or religion in their content or have provisions that explain when it is acceptable and how to frame the discussion. This is the section of your editorial style guide to explain the intricacies of such controversies as they relate to your brand so you can prevent reputation management catastrophes.
Section 7: Sourcing
With great research comes great responsibility...and unfortunately a lot of choices, too. Clear up the confusion around how to properly cite research by deciding on one methodology and documenting it in your editorial style guide. Explain how to create footnotes, references, links to external cites, or even bibliographies if they are relevant to your company. This section of your editorial style guide doesn't need to be long; just write down the rules, and provide some examples of proper citations so writers can easily attribute their sources properly.
Illustrating the Difference Between Right and Wrong
Every section of your editorial style guide can benefit from real life examples of the concepts you're explaining, whether you include those examples on the same page or as an appendix at the end of the guide. For example, when talking about proper formatting, include a visual example of a well-formatted blog post with call-outs that detail why the elements therein are successful. Or if you're discussing grammar usage, provide an incorrect example, then mark it up to show how a writer could fix it to align with your editorial style guide. Bridging your requirements with proper executions from your actual website will help illustrate these concepts more clearly and cut down on follow-up questions and instances of exceptions to the rules you've laid out.
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