Should Your Blog Have A Style Guide?
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Who needs a style guide?
Apparently, just about everyone has a style guide. Is that a good enough reason for you to get a style guide on your blog?
What Is A Style Guide?
A style guide dictates how phraseology, links, punctuation, and layout might look.
A style guide is a reference tool. It’s not a huge book of required reading. It is for those moments when you’re writing and you wonder “should I have a space before and after the em dash, or not?” That’s when you turn to the style guide to find out the answer.
A style guide is more like a dictionary than a novel, referred to only clarify a specific question. It helps keep everything looking the same so that the reader has a unified experience across all of the writers on your blog.
When Should You Have A Style Guide?
A style guide is a good idea in some situations, and you might want to create one if you are
1. You are accepting guest posts.
Why does WPMU.org have a style guide?
Because they want anyone who is writing for WPMU to know how their posts should look so they fit in with the rest of the site.
On the Todaymade blog, we accepted guest posts for a while, and created a list of things we expected our guest bloggers to do. This was not really a style guide, which approaches the idea of what a post should be from a assumptive positive angle (i.e. we assume you’re going to be accepted, so of course you’ll follow this guide), and was instead approached from a defensive angle (i.e. this is what we expect, don’t you break these rules).
A style guide might have been a better approach, although when you are accepting guest posts in a wide call, you do have to set up some restrictions.
2. You have a team blog.
Having several writers on your blog means having several writing styles.
Maybe one writer is prone to using lots of H2 headings, while another uses no headings at all. A style guide is particularly helpful if you don’t have a set process by someone to do the final proof and publish, or if your team is geographically spread out.
A style guide allows writers to write freely in their own voice and style, but it shows them how to clean things up a bit before submitting the post to be published.
3. You don’t have an editor.
If your blog has one person who does the final proofing and finessing before setting blog posts to publish, you may not really need a style guide.
But if your editor doesn’t relish the thought of taking lumps of coal and polishing them into diamonds, even an abbreviated style guide would help. At least the writers would have some basics suggestions written down, and the editor can go in and make sure punctuation usage, for example, is up to standards.
If you don’t have an editor, get a style guide for your team.
How Do You Create A Style Guide?
If you’ve decided you need a style guide for your blog, you can create one relatively easy.
1. Start with an established guide.
There is no need to reinvent the wheel.
Generally, most smaller organizations and blogs choose an established style guide as the basis for what they will do, and then expound on it with a few pages of specifics for what they need. I was a newspaper reporter for three years, so I’m partial to the AP Stylebook, but you could use the Chicago Manual of Style, the Yahoo Style Guide, or even a modified version of these.
These guides have done the difficult work of laying an incredible number of specifics. You don’t need to redo those. You can use these as your reference for spelling, punctuation, phrase usage, etc.
I have a copy of the AP Stylebook along with Strunk and White’s Elements Of Style, and they are helpful to refer to once in a while.
2. Determine your proprietary methods.
Some of what you’ll be creating in your style guide is specifically related to your site, and not covered by those larger foundational guides.
For example, we have some different HTML elements that we use to feature colored boxes for tips as well as others for listing additional resources for our readers. Our style guide would explain which boxes get used when, and the HTML required to get them to show up.
Other similar examples might be based on things in your CSS style sheet that would dictate how things appear in a blog post (“never use the H4!” or “don’t use blockquote – just indent instead!”). You may have a particular size you need your photos to be, or how you want video clips embedded. You may want paragraphs to be no more than two sentences each, with plenty of white space on your page. Maybe using lots of bullet lists instead of writing out sentences is better for your blog.
Determine what you do that fits the look of your blog or social media, and write it down.
3. Consider how you already work.
If you have been blogging a long time, consider how you and your team already blog. There is probably no need to up-end everything in the zeal of creating an official style guide.
A great example of this is with the usage of % vs. percent. Coming from a background of newspaper writing, I spelled percent out entirely. However, some blogging and content marketing trends use the percent sign itself rather than spell it out. The same goes for using actual numbers in headlines instead of following the traditional rule of spelling out numbers under ten. On these, I acquiesced.
Is the entire team used a particular way of doing something? Unless it is truly detrimental (e.g. excessive use of H1 in the body of the post), consider including that usage into your style guide. Choose your battles; not everything must be done away with.
4. Clarify your best practices.
There are some things that are less about style and more about best practices that should still be clearly defined for your team. For example, you might want to tell them what kind of images they can use with their posts. Here, we stopped using stock photos for our blog posts, so our style sheet would indicate the proper way to create graphics.
Other common examples might be which websites to avoid linking to, or whether links should have nofollow in them. Talk about how they should (or should not) use keywords or anchor text. Let them know how to prep the post and if they are to take any SEO actions on the post.
5. Keep it short, simple, and snark-free.
The custom style guide you create shouldn’t be a multi-volume tome of great complexity. Think more along the lines of 2 – 4 pages, tops.
Don’t get snarky, either. A style guide is not the place to rant and rail against an particular error you don’t like. This is not the place to go off on the Oxford comma (which I love :-). The editor can take care of that.
Be direct, use plain language, and spell it out simply what you want your writers to do. The longer and more complicated your guide gets, the more likely a team member will glance at it, decide it’s too much trouble to be bothered with, and write the post as they want and assume someone will clean things up.
6. Make it easily available.
Make your style guide readily accessible to the team, both in how it is presented and in its location. A good style guide will have a brief table of contents, followed by an introduction and then your sections. This just makes it easier to process and for your team to see what’s covered by the guide.
Accessibility is easily accomplished through shared note apps like Evernote, Dropbox, or Google Drive. However you choose to create and share your guide, just make it easy to keep updated and for your team to get to it and read it.
We often hear about content creation as if it was a question of quantity and volume only. A style guide is one of those things that answers the questions of quality, and how we go about creating that content.
April 17, 2014