How to Create a Writing Style Guide For Your Team of Authors

Online Marketing

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We all write with our own style. It’s not the same to read a post from my colleagues David and Ruth than one from me. Each author’s style has inevitable variations… If there are more than two hands writing on a blog, it’s often a good idea to agree on certain aspects to make the readers’ experience consistent. This is achieved by having a defined style guide.

A style guide for your content is a document that describes the expectations and standards of your organization that each content of your blog must meet. The guide should describe everything from grammar and spelling to element layout, such as the proper use of headings and the correct choice of images.

Having a style guide defined for your content ensures that it all ends up having a similar level of quality.
Having a style guide defined for your content ensures that it all ends up having a similar level of quality. Source: Giphy.

Imagine if David wrote posts of only 300 words with lots of gifs inside (believe me, he could do that 😂), Ruth wrote posts of 1,000 words without any picture, and that I wrote posts of 5,000 words with super formal tone. It would be crazy to have these differences in style on the same blog, right? Maybe on some website this could make any sense, but it definitely wouldn’t in ours.

Regardless of the author who writes the content, we must try to make the experience of reading a blog as consistent as possible in order to associate this type of content with our organization’s brand. This is why the style guides are very useful, as they unify the criteria to be followed, while giving some creative margin to feel comfortable when writing.

A style guide should answer at least the following questions:

  • In what tone and style are the contents written?
  • How is the content organized and formatted?
  • When is the content ready to be published?
  • What multimedia content can be included in the text and how?
  • What audience are we targeting?

It seems pretty obvious, but each author may have her own interpretations unless all the writing aspects are discussed and stated in the style guide.

Aspects to Include in Your Style Guide

Now that you know what a style guide is, let’s look at the sections you can include in yours and how you could apply them on own blog. Hopefully, at the end of this post you’ll have multiple ideas for creating your style guide 🤗

Editorial Process to Follow

The first thing your style guide should include is a description of the process your content will go through from creation to publication. It doesn’t have to be a super detailed explanation, but having this clear will help new authors to understand the times and stages of your editorial process.

Knowing the stages the content will go through is very useful for your blog's novice writers.
Knowing the stages the content will go through is very useful for your blog‘s novice writers. Source: Giphy.

In our case, this process is as follows:

  1. We decide the idea we want to write about and add it to the editorial calendar, giving it a date of publication and an author. And yes, we do it with Nelio Content, our WordPress plugin.
  2. The author writes the post and makes sure that it is complete thanks to Nelio Content‘s quality control.
  3. The author proof-reads the content and marks the sentences she thinks are interesting to publish on social networks.
  4. The author includes a reviewer in the notifications and marks the post as pending review.
  5. The reviewer is responsible for reviewing the post, generating the automatic social promotion messages (if not already done by the original author), and marking the post as scheduled.

Voice, Tense, and Point of View

The way you express yourself when writing is very important and should be considered in your content. Let’s talk about voice, tense, and point of view…

When we refer to voice we distinguish between active and passive voice. Don’t worry, you don’t have to dust off your grammar books, here’s an example:

  • Active voice: Nelio Content creates automatic social messages to promote your content.
  • Passive voice: Automatic social messages to promote your content are created by Nelio Content.

In general, the active voice is much more direct and simple for the reader to understand. And it usually uses fewer words to express the same idea. The passive voice, on the other hand, uses an indirect construction and is often more difficult to understand. Therefore, we will usually use active voice whenever possible in our content.

Present, past and future. Choose the proper verb tenses wisely in your content.
Present, past and future. Choose the proper verb tenses wisely in your content. Source: Giphy.

Second, let’s talk about verb tenses. As you may already know, we can write content in the present, past, or future tense. We usually use the present unless we are talking about something that will happen in the future or something that has already happened. Sometimes as a writer it is difficult to realize that we are using an inappropriate verb tense.

Finally, when writing we might use different points of view. We will use the first person to refer to ourselves, the second person to refer to the reader, and the third person to refer to another person, place, or idea.

If you follow common sense when writing, you probably won’t have to worry about any of this, as it’ll come naturally to you. So, the only real advice I can give you here is: make sure you don’t use too much passive voice to simplify your content.

Target Audience

We’ve said it a lot in our articles: it’s not the same to target teenage fans of reggaeton music than to target fans of Elvis Presley or Tom Jones. It’s important to know who’s the audience of your blog in order to decide how you’ll be addressing them.

Understand your audience so you can provide them with the content they need.
Understand your audience so you can provide them with the content they need. Source: Giphy.

It’s important to make sure you are creating the right content for the right audience. You may already know who you’re talking to, but the question is: do your other authors know it too? Your writers need to know who they’re writing for. Thanks to the style guide, if they have an idea in their head of who they are interacting with, your writers can anticipate the questions they might have and be able to answer them in your content.

Formatting

Do you allow formatting text in your content? If so, you should make it clear in your style guide what is allowed and what is not. Assuming you won’t allow adding colors to the text (please don’t do that, colorblind people will appreciate it), you will have to highlight it using bold and italic text. Avoid underlining, as they are confused with links.

Formatting the text is important, but don't overdo it. Define what is valid in your style guide.
Formatting the text is important, but don’t overdo it. Define what is valid in your style guide. Source: Giphy.

Now the question is when to use bold and when to use italics. In principle, both are formatting resources to emphasize fragments of the text. You can consider them equal and indistinguishable, but we usually differentiate them clearly. Most of the time we use bold to highlight relevant content and italics to mark technical or difficult words that the reader may not know.

You may decide to use the formatting in a completely different way, but be sure to make it clear in the style guide so that your authors are aware of it.

Using Headings

Headings help us to divide our content into sections and subsections to make it easier to read. You must tell your authors what headings you allow and how they should be used by describing them in the style guide.

In WordPress the title of the article will use the first level heading (H1), so we will use headings from the second level onwards (H2, H3, H4, …) within the content. In my experience, it’s usually useful to use a maximum of three levels within the text (H2, then H3 and, if necessary, H4).

Hyperlinks

Defining the links within the content correctly can make your readers click or not click them and even affect the SEO of your website. In general, in your style guide you should indicate that linking whole sentences is not recommended (unless they are very short). Also, the text of the link should clearly state what’s to be found when the user clicks on it. And this comes without saying: please avoid using clickbaits.

Beware of how you create links in your content. Please define in your style guide how this should be done.
Beware of how you create links in your content. Please define in your style guide how this should be done. Source: Giphy.

Remember to add links in the content to posts from your own blog as well as to external sources. Creating a good link network will be very useful in your content.

Multimedia

This is a critical point in the content style guide of any website. We need to be clear about what visual elements we allow and under what circumstances.

In our particular case, we allow the use of animated gifs and images as long as they come from free sources. In addition, a link to the original reference of the file or to the author should be provided whenever possible.

Select a giphy
Search and select the gif you want to add it to your post. An awesome feature provided by Nelio Content.

For images, in our case the maximum allowed size to upload to the WordPress Media Library is 250KB. In case you’re wondering, this is how we set this limit. For featured images we always use Unsplash—we select an image that we like and is related to the content we’ve written, resize it so that it occupies a maximum of 1,200 pixels wide, compress it to reduce its size without losing quality, and upload it to our media library. Then, we fill in the alternative text (alt attribute of the image) and description as they help the SEO.

On the other hand, we also allow to upload videos if necessary, although we try to reduce their size as much as possible to avoid performance problems. Since it’s difficult to reduce them without losing much quality, we usually don’t use this resource. But you should keep it in mind nonetheless.

Finally, we avoid image hotlinking (unless the source requires us to). Something that you should also include in your style guide as a rule, since it’s not a good idea to do.

Meta-data

In WordPress when we are writing a post we may have metaboxes enabled to include meta-information. Do your authors know how to fill them in?

By this I mean that you probably have some plugin to improve the SEO or promote the content in social networks that adds these boxes and that authors must fill before publishing it. If you don’t establish guidelines for how this has to be done in your style guide, authors might skip some important steps.

Snippet preview in Yoast
Yoast SEO adds a box to fill in SEO metadata. Do your authors know that they need to fill this information?

Keep this under control to ensure that the final quality of the content is complete and includes everything you expect. It’s very useful to explain how these boxes work in your style guide.

Examples of Public Style Guides of Relevant Websites

It’s always easier to understand something when you see an example. Well, here are seven style guides from seven websites that you probably know. Each one is different, but I’m sure you can use them to create your own:

Now that you have read this post you should be able to create your own style guide without any problems. Once you have it, review it with the rest of the team and agree to apply it. Above all, it’s important that content reviewers take into account the aspects described in the guide to ensure that the final quality of the content meets your requirements.

And remember that if you think we have left something behind, you have the comments at your disposal to let us know.

Featured image by rawpixel via Unsplash.

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Antonio obtained his PhD in Computer Science at UPC. He has several publications in the field of data mining and information retrieval applied to conceptual modeling and health informatics. He specialized in the design, development, and integration of web services and cloud applications. He's an active contributor to the WordPress community and participates in meetups, seminars and WordCamps.

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