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How to Create an Awesome Editorial Style Guide

By: Compose.ly — March 31, 2020

Customers tend to think about company communications as if they come from an individual. We say things like “Microsoft announced a new pricing structure” or “Google says we should avoid duplicate content,” even though we know a company can’t speak or write. The written content we see on these companies’ websites is often the product of multitudes of writers and editors, but, to the reader, it’s just the company’s voice.

That’s why your company needs to speak with a unified voice. If your brand voice changes in every blog post or email, it weakens your marketing efforts and dilutes brand loyalty in your customers.

How can you get your entire team — staff and freelance — to consistently present your brand in the same way? The answer is to create a superb editorial style guide.

What is an Editorial Style Guide?

A style guide is a document that tells your marketing team, content creators, and employees how to write in a way that reflects your brand’s character. It also specifies how you want them to refer to your brand and products, translate industry jargon, and use grammar and punctuation.

The goal is to create consistency across your communication channels and solidify your brand’s style in the reader’s mind.

Getting Started

You may be tempted to find an editorial style guide template and fill in the blanks, but that method could leave you with a lot of flat, boring content. To create a guide that will help your writers understand the character they’re playing when they write as your company, you need to be involved from the ground up.

Since most people will only skim the first few paragraphs of this material, you should discuss voice at the beginning of your document. The rest of the guide will consist of specific guidelines that your writers and editors can consult when questions arise.

Step 1: Be Clear About Your Brand Voice

If you haven’t given much thought to your brand’s personality, do that before you begin.

  • Decide whether you want your audience to view you as authoritative or youthful, classic or cutting-edge, light-hearted or deeply ethical.
  • Imagine a continuum of formality, from chatty and informal at one end to scholarly at the other, and choose where your voice will sit on that line. This will determine whether you allow your writers to use contractions, slang, or sentence fragments.
  • Know your audience. Are you speaking to industry experts as a seasoned professional, or are you addressing beginners as an understanding mentor?
  • Distill your answers into a brief statement that paints a clear picture for your writers. Try describing your company’s voice as if it were a person — a young surfer talking to their friends on the beach, for instance, or a college professor making complex ideas accessible to their students.
  • Branding also influences the content you choose. National Geographic, Intrepid Travel, and Condé Nast all feature travel writing, but they approach it from different angles. One digs into local cultures, another tackles tough ethical issues, and the third covers luxury resorts and cruises. Clarify what topics suit your corporate voice.
  • Your company’s mission statement or values could also fit in this section. A good example is the Mailchimp style guide, which opens with a Writing Goals and Principles section to set the tone for their brand voice.

  • You can also use this section to address issues like gender, racism, ageism, and other sensitive topics. The Conscious Style Guide is a great source for in-depth coverage of these topics.

Step 2: The Details Create the Voice

Now it’s time to lay out the details of how your team will convey the voice you’ve defined. Be as specific as possible so they can measure their work against your standards.

  • Tone: Restate whether the tone should be formal, casual, scholarly, etc.
  • Sentence fragments: If you want a more dynamic, intimate voice, allow a few fragments. For a more scholarly, formal tone, forbid them. The J. Peterman catalog is famous for using almost nothing but fragments to create engaging product stories.

  • Contractions:  Using them makes your material feel more friendly and casual. Let your writers know if that’s what you want.
  • Humor: Specify what type of humor should be used (if any) using words like sarcastic, witty, dry, or silly. Make your preference more concrete by giving a few examples of what you do and don’t like.
  • Person: Addressing the reader as “you” works well for marketing copy and giving advice. Third-person writing is more formal and scholarly.
  • Topic headings: Modern copy uses a lot of them in order to make content scannable.
  • Structure: Mention features like bullet points, pull quotes, action items, FAQ lists, quizzes, and anything else you’d like to see in your content.
  • Reading level: Most articles aimed at the general public shoot for an 8th-grade level, which is easy reading for the average American. Maybe you want to be even more accessible, or perhaps your audience is looking for more intellectual material.
  • Sentence and paragraph length: Give measurable, specific guidelines like “paragraphs of no more than 100 words.” Word counts influence readability, but they can also be used to express your style. For instance, writers for Neil Patel’s blog include lots of one-sentence paragraphs that stand alone on the page.

Step 3: Break Down Industry-Specific Terms

Most style guides offer direction about slang and jargon. An effective guide will carefully regulate the use of these terms to shape brand personality.

  • Euphemisms: For instance, referring to synthetic leather as “vegan leather,” or an unemployed person as “between jobs.”
  • Industry designations: Clarify anything an outsider might mix up, like “gold electroplate” vs. “gold-plated” and include your preferences.
  • Common synonyms or slang: Perhaps your company sells coffee and you like to use the terms “cup of joe” or “java.” Share the synonyms that fit your style best as well as your pet peeves.
  • Jargon: Give your writers a list of translations for any terms that outsiders wouldn’t know. Again, think about the emotional impact and character of the words you choose, not just clarity.

Step 4: Clarify Branded Terms

Your guide should be very clear about how you want writers to talk about your brand and products.

  • Capitalization and spacing: For example, AdSense has no space and a capital S in the middle. Any deviation from this would weaken AdSense’s brand identity.
  • Trademarks: Indicate where to use trademark™, registered trademark®, and other symbols.
  • Your company name and variations: Make sure your writers are aware of whether your company name includes a definite article or the word “Company” or “Inc.” as part of the title. List any acceptable variations (e.g. The Hershey Company or Hershey’s). List which branded terms should be used and which should be avoided (e.g. Coke instead of Coca Cola).
  • Personal brands: If your executives have strong feelings about the words used to describe them, include those here. For instance, maybe your founder prefers to be referred to as [First name] [Last name] instead of as Dr. [Last name].

Step 5: Choose a Stylebook

Don’t get bogged down in minutiae like punctuation or capitalization. Commercial style manuals already exist for that purpose. Select the one you prefer so your writers all know what rules to follow. The two most popular style manuals to choose from are:

  • AP Stylebook: This manual is favored by journalists and public relations professionals.
  • Chicago Manual: With a broader reach, from fiction to academic work, this guide is definitely the more nuanced of the two.

Specify anything you want that differs from your chosen guide — like “We use AP Stylebook but prefer Oxford commas in a series.”

Step 6: Add Details for Web Content

Some businesses create separate web editorial style guides, but for most companies this can be a section in the regular guide.

  • SEO: List the keywords and phrases that are your part of your overall strategy. You can include other optimization strategies here as well.
  • Links: Indicate how many internal or external links you want, any internal pages that should always be linked, and competitors that you’d prefer not to mention.

Step 7: List your Procedures

The final item you should share with your staff and freelancers is the list of processes you want them to follow.

  • Formats: Let your content creators know whether you want content submitted as Word documents, Google Docs, or something else.
  • Content planning: If you want writers to consult an online editorial or social media calendar, include a link.
  • Filing: For your internal staff, add some notes about naming conventions and organization of files so everyone knows how to find your content assets.

Step 8: Format and Share your Guide

At this point, you have comprehensive notes that are ready to be turned into a style guide. All you have to do is clean it up for readability.

If you need formatting ideas, look at some editorial style guide examples. Your finished product doesn’t need to be as detailed as the guides from big enterprises like Microsoft or Google, but their overall structure and scannability provide good models for any style guide to follow.

You can save your guide as a Google doc, post it on your website, or share it as a pdf file. Make sure the format you choose is easy to search, especially if your guide is lengthy. Next, share it with everyone in your organization, from marketing to customer support.

Conclusion

Creating a style guide is an introspective activity. The process will likely deepen your staff’s — and your own — understanding of your organization’s identity. Once it’s finished, your editorial style guide will enable your team to speak with a unified, recognizable voice that reflects your brand’s unique personality.

This article was written by Compose.ly writer Lauren Haas.


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