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How to Create an Editorial Style Guide ... That People Will Actually Use

Kevin Lund

Consistency in style, tone, grammar, and punctuation is essential to an enjoyable blog experience. Successfully done, these elements go unnoticed by readers who are too busy consuming the easy, breezy content. That’s the way it should be. Style guides create uniform content and allow that content to shine.

Editorial style guides are easier to set up than you think, and the payoff can be substantial for the success of your blog and the enjoyment of your readers. For those interested in a blog with consistency and quality, a content style guide is an invaluable resource.

What is an editorial style guide?

Content without rules is confusing. Frankly, anything without rules can be. It’s like going to a restaurant and being told there’s no menu and you should order whatever you like. That won’t end well for anybody involved.

The menu isn’t just there to help the kitchen staff anchor to a few items they can whip up expeditiously. It also lets patrons know what options they have for their dining experience.

A content style guide works the same way: It informs how the brand writes its content and generally shows up online. But it also helps create consistency that consumers begin to associate with the brand.

This consistency spans style, tone, grammar, and punctuation. And if you think this consistency isn’t all that important, consider how you’d feel if your favorite burger-and-shake joint only started serving charcuterie next week. That cheese spread is great—but, to borrow from the late great Clara Peller, “Where’s the beef?”

For content marketing teams, the beef begins with words.

Start with the words

In thinking about your brand’s content style guide, it’s not about nitpicking the ampersands and percent symbols. But that debate plays a role in the larger conversation. The details add up.

Clear and cohesive editorial guidelines help content marketers and writers produce winning content strategy. When the content being created and distributed aligns with what the audience is expecting and craving? There’s the holy grail. But even King Arthur had to start somewhere first.

Here’s how to build an editorial style guide:

  • Start with an editorial baseline. From AP to MLA to Chicago, there are several big-hitters in the editorial style space. How do we feel about the Oxford comma? Are we capitalizing prepositions in headlines? Sticking to one baseline as a source of truth allows brands to make the kinds of subtle modifications that stand out.
  • Think about formatting. Do we use em dashes instead of semicolons? Should bulleted list items begin with bold type? This isn’t just for consistency. This also plays into content readability and accessibility, two important factors for digital engagement.
  • Stick to a voice and tone. There’s a difference between smart and snark. Determining how your brand sounds and feels online sets the expectation for your audience. Your company blog shouldn’t make your Instagram followers feel like you’re an imposter.
  • Be clear about the finer details. Are we taking on this social commentary? Should we avoid certain terms? Adding any extra notes helps your team understand the room they have to work with when building out your content.

The right words, cohesive formatting, and consistent voice go a long way toward building your brand’s presence online. But that’s only half the story.

Be creative

In the digital era, user experience matters—88% of online consumers are less likely to return to a website following a bad experience. It’s why your editorial calendar must be about more than just the words you’re planning on site pages. Visuals are important, too.

Similar to content formatting rules you should already be thinking about, visual considerations include things like where calls to action show up on blog posts and how to style pull quotes. The former ties to larger company revenue goals, feeding users into different stages of the funnel. The latter ties to social engagement goals, giving users the ability to quickly and easily show off your content to their audiences.

Any great content strategy goes hand in hand with how design and creative looks to amplify the content and let it shine in a sea of digital noise. It’s why modern content marketing teams often include cohorts of designers, writers, social media coordinators, and marketing strategists in a “pod” structure. Cross-functional content teams chop down the silos that are often the byproducts of impassioned writers and designers producing content marketing components on their own.

Documenting how content should look and feel is important. So is writing down how cross-functional teams work together in producing and scaling content. Where do the handoffs take place from ideation to publish date? How do we repurpose this asset for this new channel? These are questions that can be answered by a well-defined content style guide.


Be more like M. Night Shyamalan

The reason M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense was such a massive hit wasn’t just that—SPOILER ALERT—it had one of the best twist endings in cinema history. It wasn’t even that Bruce Willis’ character was dead the whole time. It was that he was written so perfectly and flawlessly, the audience could have never seen it coming.

We were all captivated by the story. The ending was a left hook to the jaw.

Ultimately, your content style guide’s purpose is to give your users as little friction as possible as they consume your content. Want to know your style guide is working like it’s designed to? Your audience should never really notice it. The value your content unpacks is what should be bringing your audience back for more. Not your philosophy on the Oxford comma or the indentations in the bullet lists.

As times change, your rules may have to change, too. As social climates (or global pandemics) alter your audience’s landscape, make sure your content style guide keeps up. This may mean documenting new excluded words and updating your tone so your usually optimistic social content doesn’t sound too out of touch in evolving and challenging new contexts.

Get people behind it

Once you’ve come up with your editorial style guide, it’s time to ship it to your team and your organization. Make it the source of truth and refer to it as often as you need to as new content comes through the pipeline.

But even the best content marketing style guides need people behind it to make them come to life. Start with the style guide, craft your content strategy, build your content calendar, and then determine who creates the content and related assets.

For brands scaling out content efforts, fractional marketing support may be worth exploring. This flanks your brand—no matter how big or small it is—with the resources, experience, and partners that can elevate the creation and distribution of your content. Ultimately, they give your content marketing some nifty new superpowers.

Once you’ve got your style guide in circulation, check out these tips for creating content for humans.

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