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The Pillars of a Successful Editorial Style Guide and Why You Need It

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editorial style guide

A strong editorial style guide is the foundation for all great content—even if you think your brand is too small or new to need one. As Neil Patel suggests:

“More than just a preferred list of grammar rules, an editorial style guide provides your content team with guidelines for the creation of useful, on-brand content. An editorial style guide ensures a standard baseline for quality and consistency. This will become more critical as your in-house editorial team grows.”

Not only are editorial guidelines important, but they don’t take long to create and will help you save time down the road. Not to mention your content will be of higher quality and more consistent. Use this guide to create an editorial style guide and learn more about why you need it in the first place. 

Keep Reading: 5 Signs Your Content Development Process Needs an Update

The Importance of an Editorial Style Guide

A style guide seems like something only big brands need, but even a small to mid-size organization will benefit from it. Before embarking on creating yours, consider the many advantages to be gained from taking time to create this guide:

  • Everyone on your team, from freelancers to in-house leaders, is on the same page.
  • You create consistency throughout all of your content.
  • It serves as a reference for freelancers and agencies to better understand your brand.
  • Managers can delegate content projects more easily and effectively.
  • It saves the team time when editing content.

Ultimately, everyone’s life is made easier as you work through every step of the content creation lifecycle. 

The Key Pillars of an Editorial Style Guide

There are many factors you can include in your editorial style guide—and you can choose to make yours as simple or detailed as you’d like. At the minimum, it’s important to include the following key details. Imagine the reader is a new hire, totally unfamiliar with your brand, and tell them everything they should know about the following:

  • Audience and purpose 
  • Tone and voice
  • Spelling and grammar preferences
  • Sources and links
  • Word count
  • Format
  • SEO best practices
  • Submission guidelines

Here’s what you need to include in each section. 

Audience and Purpose 

Audience is the most vital thing for writers to understand before writing something for your brand. In this section of your guide, describe your audience, for example, the readers of your blog or the people who download your case studies. Include as many audience insights and demographics as you can, which will be especially helpful for agency partners or freelancers who are unfamiliar with your industry.

When considering purpose, look both broad and specific. One of your main objectives is always to generate traffic and interest for your brand or product. In addition, your content itself likely has other purposes, for example, trying to solve a problem, providing value to your audience, or answering questions about products and services. 

Use your editorial style guide to spell out the intent of your content efforts on the whole. This will also serve as a useful tool for your content team when generating and evaluating ideas for article topics.

Keep Reading: 5 Audience Research Tool to Create Targeted Content

Tone and Voice

One of the most distinctive qualities of any brand is its tone and voice. Think of this as the personality of your content. Use the following questions to define these factors:

  • Do you use the first person or the first person plural, or do you prefer to stick to third?
  • How formal is your writing? Is it conversational, conservative, or technical?
  • What sort of personality traits might your content exhibit? Is it fun, friendly, passionate, etc.?

The final outcome might be in a graph format, with the tone or voice element on the left and an example on the right. You may even split this out based on the type of content you’re creating, as in this example from Frontify:

Spelling and Grammar Preferences

Getting your spelling and grammar correct is critical when creating content as a brand. Being clear about this in your editorial style guide leads to consistency that your audience can count on. The preferences you have as a brand don’t matter as much as making sure everyone understands them. To develop these preferences, ask yourself questions, like:

  • Will we use any British variant spellings?
  • Do we follow AP, Chicago or APA style?
  • Should writers include spaces on either side of em-dashes?
  • Do we spell out “percent” or use the symbol?

While all of this may sound unimportant, when looking at your content as a whole, these small details bring it all together. It’s a good idea to consult with your editors on this section so they can address some of the most frequent issues they have to correct and share their preferences as well.

Sources and Links

Online content now includes many links to external and internal sources—and that’s great for SEO. However, you need to be as specific as possible when defining your standards for which sources are legitimate and how to source them in the content itself.

Here are some sourcing and linking questions to answer in your editorial style guide:

  • How often do we link to external websites?
  • Does survey or research data need to be recent? 
  • How do we prefer the anchor text to be formatted?
  • Do we list sources at the end of articles? If so, what should the format be?
  • Do we require a certain number of internal links be included?

Content Formatting

Focus on how the content should be structured in the formatting section of your style guide. This will be different for all types of content, from white papers to blog posts, so you may need to include a section for each type of content you create. 

Use this section to talk about preferences for:

  • Bullet points
  • Subheaders
  • Paragraph length
  • Word count 
  • Featured image requirements
  • In-text media requirements

Don’t forget to break out sub-content styles within each content type. For example, with blog posts, you may have specific formatting for how-to guides that differs from that of listicles.

Keep Reading: How to Develop an Inbound Content Marketing Plan That Works

SEO Best Practices

SEO considerations play a major role in any successful content strategy. Creating content without SEO in mind is a waste of time, especially for new brands that get little to no website traffic yet. To ensure your content ranks high on search engines, it’s important to spell out best practices for writers, which might include:

  • Keyword use and placement
  • Outbound and internal linking frequency
  • Header formatting

If you’re not sure where to start with SEO for your blog or other content pieces, read through JTC’s Big SEO Checklist for Content to better understand what matters and why. You can even send the download to your writers as a resource to turn back to.

Imagery 

Your guide will likely focus heavily on written content but don’t leave out guidelines regarding imagery. Here you’ll list the types of imagery that can be found in your content, I.E. illustrations, graphics, and pictures, and what you look for in each one. For example:

  • Are stock photos okay or do you have brand photos for them to choose from? 
  • Should photos include people or be more abstract?
  • What size should the images be?
  • Should images be landscape or portrait?
  • Should writers include screenshots and graphs in the content?

It’s also helpful to include the best places to find images so you can make sure they’re choosing Royalty Free photos.

Submission Guidelines

Streamline the editing process and help your content team work more efficiently with freelance writers and guest authors by including submission guidelines. While you may send your entire editorial style guide to contributors, this particular section will include specifics about submitting the content, including:

  • Preferred file formats
  • Overall content format and sections to be included
  • Whether or not to include imagery
  • Who to send drafts to
  • What author bios should include

Check out a few details that Social Media Today includes in their submission guidelines for contributors below:

Keep Reading: 5 Elements of a Kick-Ass Guest Posting Program

Hosting Your Style Guide

Once you’ve created your style guide, where should you host it? There are a number of ways you can accomplish this, depending on what’s best for your internal processes. Here are a few ideas to consider:

  • As a section of your website. If this needs to be more public-facing, it may be wise to keep it in an easily accessible place.
  • In internal file storage, like a private company drive.
  • With a Google Doc that can easily be shared and updated.
  • Using an organizational tool like Trello or Monday.

Editorial Style Guide Examples

Check out some examples of editorial style guides that can serve as inspiration for creating your own. You’ll notice some are more in-depth than others because what you include is specific to what matters most for your brand and content.

Create Your Own Editorial Style Guide

Editorial style guides look different from one brand to the next. You can get as broad or as granular as you wish, but having these key pillars defined in a centralized document is critical. Ultimately, your editorial style guide will contribute to the efficiency of your team and the quality of your content, which helps you get more from everything you create.

Jesse Relkin is the Content Manager for Jessica Thiefels Consulting. She has been a freelance writer and content professional for more than a decade with experience in content strategy, SEO, PR and more. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.

The Pillars of a Successful Editorial Style Guide and Why You Need It

By: Jesse Relkin Time to Read: 6 min