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As a marketer, creating content that converts readers into customers is key to a successful content strategy.
This is especially true for team members who have to write content, but aren’t writers by trade.
So, how do you maintain a consistent voice across all the content your company creates?
The answer starts with a strong editorial style guide.
They’re the holy grail of writer’s guidelines, making it easy for everyone to understand your organization’s voice, style, and tone.
They also answer questions around formatting, appropriate usage of branded terms, and more.
When every writer on your team is equipped with one, they’ll be prepared to execute content that better reinforces your brand.
In this post, you’ll learn everything you need to know about creating one that work.
Table of Contents:
One reason companies don’t bother creating style guides is because they take time. Eliminate that excuse with this free template. Download it now, then use this post to learn how to complete each section. By the time you’re done, you’ll have a complete copy you can share with your organization.
For the purposes of this post, here’s the definition we’ll work with:
A content style guide is a document that outlines the expectations and brand standards that every piece of content needs to meet. This should describe everything from grammar and spelling to design elements, like proper header use and logo placement.
If you’re looking for even more information on how to build your style guide, check out the following 15 examples.
Style guides aren’t just for designers. They can help all content creators achieve the following:
Above all, they help editors and managers save time reworking writer’s content by setting clear expectations up front.
If you ever took a journalism class, you’re probably familiar with AP style.
But, did you know there are other style books you can follow, too?
Brands, like publishers, often base portions of their style guides on AP style. Consider ordering a copy for your office.
Even the best writers can use reminders on basic aspects of writing well.
For team members who aren’t writers by trade, including some general tips can help them avoid mistakes, too.
General best practices should center around three writing elements:
Most content should be written in active voice. However, there are times when passive voice may be preferable. In order to use the correct voice, though, it’s important to understand the difference between active and passive voice.
(For clarification, this isn’t referring to brand voice. That will be touched on later.)
In the active voice example, the subject comes first, followed by a verb. This differs from the passive voice example, where the action comes first, followed by the subject.
Hear the difference? Active voices sounds much more fluid, while passive voice sounds formal.
Tenses tell readers when something will occur, or when it happened in the past. There are three tenses, each with four tense subcategories.
Present tense is an unchanging, repeated, or reoccurring action that exists right now.
Present Tense Subcategories:
Past tense expresses an action that starts and ends at a previous point in time.
Past Tense Subcategories:
Future tense expresses an action that occurs in the future. It is recommended that writers avoid writing in this style when they create content for potential customers.
Future Tense Subcategories:
Point of view refers to the perspective the author assumes when writing.
The Three Points of View:
Next, your style guide should explain how to translate jargon into conversational language customers will understand.
Every company and industry uses some type of jargon. This could include acronyms, shorthand that refers to products, or terms you use internally (that most people wouldn’t understand out of context).
List common pieces of jargon and internal language, and offer better alternatives to use in content and copy instead.
For example, a hybrid car manufacturer might use the term, “advanced technology-partial zero emission vehicle”.
What a mouthful, right? A car shopper might better understand “hybrid car” or “natural gas engine.”
Template Action Item: Underneath The Internal Jargon Translations header:
The next piece of your style guide revolves around choosing and outlining expectations for the types of content your marketing team will create.
There are many different types of content that you can choose to create.
Some common content types include:
Now, you may have different style standards for different types of content. For example, social media posts would likely follow different best practices than video scripts.
Take a look at MailChimp’s style guide. They offer specific writing recommendations for numerous different channels and content types:
Follow their lead with your own style guide. Include each type of content your team creates.
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Another section of your style guide should identify brand names, trademarks, and so forth that must be spelled a specific way every single time it is mentioned.
Sometimes, this may have legal ramifications, like when you’re using trademarked terms.
Take a look at this example from Microsoft.com:
Note that both Intel and Core feature different legal trademark symbols. Failure to get these right could result in a letter from Intel’s lawyers.
Here’s another example from the same page:
Note that PixelSense is written not only with a trademark symbol, but with a capital S. This is likely a branding consideration the company wants to keep consistent.
If you have any branded terms that need to be spelled or formatted a certain way, whether for legal or stylistic reasons, document them in your style guide.
The next part of your style guide should explain the voice, tone, and style that your branded content should take.
Brand voice is the purposeful and consistent personification, or characterization of a brand often expressed through words, tone, and culture.
As a marketer, it’s important to bring across this voice at all times, whether that be through content or any other media form.
You may already have your brand voice figure out, but if you don’t try a brainstorming session with the following framework:
We are [insert desired perception], but we are not [insert antonym of desired perception].
For example, if we were doing a brand voice session for a major software company, it might look something like:
We are professional but not stuffy.
We are smart but not arrogant.
We are technology savvy but not inaccessible.
Repeat this process 15 to 20 times. Then, choose four or five pairings that best fit your brand voice, and record them in your template.
Tone is the inflection of your brand voice. Depending on the situation, your tone may change.
For example, if you’re giving something away you might have a fun, light-hearted tone.
However, if you’re addressing the fact that your system is down, you would take a more serious tone.
Use the following prompt to create guidelines around the appropriate tone to strike in different situations:
At [company], our standard tone should be [adjective], [adjective], and [adjective]. However, if a situation arises where it is determined by management that our regular tone is not advisable to use, refer to the following:
If [Situation One] occurs, use a [adjective] tone.
If [Situation Two] occurs, use [adjective] tone.
If [Situation Three] occurs, use [adjective] tone.
Add in situations your writers are likely to encounter.
Once you have identified what content types you’ll create, you need to define your standards of performance for each one.
Standards of performance are guidelines that each piece of content must meet for it to be published.
For example, at CoSchedule we have five standards of performance that any writer must meet before their content is published on our blog. They are:
Every blog post we write must meet these standards or it won’t be published. Set similar standards for your own content.
Under the Content Selection header:
The next part of your style guide is focused on the formatting of your content. This section of your style guide should explain to readers when to use things like H2 and H3 headers, when to use bold or italicized text and hyperlink text guidelines.
Headers and subheaders help break up your content, so it’s easy to read (or for some, skim). Identify for your writers what types of headers they should be using and when.
For example, H2 headers would be used whenever a new section of content is introduced. If you have sub-points that you need to break down for your reader that fall underneath that same section, you will use an H3 header.
According to Practical Typography, there are two rules to keep in mind when using bold or italicized text.
How you hyperlink text can affect what your reader clicks on and in some cases how your page ranks for SEO factors.
In general, best practices for hyperlinking are:
The last part of your style guide should outline how, where, and what type of images should be used when you’re creating your content.
First, decide what type of images are going to be part of your content.
There are options like stock photography which you can purchase from sites like iStock. You could also lay out guidelines for using your own photography (although photography specifics would probably be in your brand guidelines), or have your designers create your own images. Or, you may have a mix of both. Whatever you decide to do, make sure image expectations are clear to your team.
The second thing you need to decide is whether or not you’re going to include captions on your photos. If you decide to include them, how long should they be, and where are you going to place them?
Captions can also allow you to give credit to third-party photos you use in your content. This should be done anytime you use an image from an external source.
The last thing that should be defined here are appropriate photo and image dimensions for different types of content.
Consistent sizing creates a more uniform piece of content, so depending on the content types you create, your standard size may vary.
For example, on the CoSchedule blog, every graphic that is inserted into our posts is set at 770px wide (the exact column width of our blog).
The last part of your style guide should include some of the basic design elements that every marketer or writer on your marketing team should know.
You don’t have to go as in-depth into these sections. Just include any information that your marketers need to know.
The colors you use in your content can affect your reader. It’s called color psychology, and as a writer, it’s essential to match the message you want to send with a color scheme that invokes the right emotions.
In your style guide include directions on how your writers can work with designers together to match messaging they’ve created to designed images the designer has built.
The next design element that should be included in your style guide is typography. You should lay out for your writers the different fonts that are acceptable.
Because it helps establish consistency and eliminates the temptation to use fancy (yet difficult-to-read) fonts. It’ll also help designers understand how to create consistent text for designed images.
The last design element that should be in your style guide is where to place your logos in content and what logo is in current use.
This should be a relatively simple section and outline what logo is in use and where it should be placed on your content (if at all).
Now that you have read this entire post you should be able to build an entire style guide for your team.
Double check it for spelling, grammar and accuracy and ship it out to your team. Let the style guide take care of the rest.
Think we missed something? Let us know in the comments below.
This post was originally published on March 5, 2018. It was updated and republished on July 5, 2018.
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