7 Things Every Editorial Style Guide Needs

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By Lisa Marchand
jul. 27 2017 — Digital Certainty, Website Management

Graphic of a style guide with the words "tone of voice," "policy," and "consistency"

They say content is king, but errors and inconsistencies can bring that monarchy crashing down. Establishing editorial rules like when to capitalize job titles, whether or not you use the Oxford comma, and how to spell confusing industry terms will strengthen your brand and make your content shine. Here are seven things your next style guide needs: 

1. To Be a Living Document 

First and foremost, your style guide should be ever-evolving—just like your organization. Be sure your style guide is a living, breathing document that you can edit and add to as necessary. 

Also make sure that every single person in your company has access to the guide as soon as it goes live, whether it's on a microsite or lives in the company intranet. You could even push to implement it into the onboarding process. While you can't control what other people in your organization write, you can at least give them a framework of best practices that will make everyone's life just a little bit easier. 

2. Defined Voice and Tone

Without a set voice and tone, the rest of your style guide is moot. Think of your writing voice as the personality of your company. (Your tone, on the other hand, adapts to the content and the mood of your readers. More on that soon.) Ask yourself these questions before settling on one voice: 

  • Is our industry generally serious, playful, or somewhere in between? 
  • How would we describe our company in three words? How about our employees? 
  • Who is our primary audience? What sort of content do they usually consume? 
  • How do we want our audience to view us? 

Use these answers to guide your voice, and keep it simple. You want to be able to define your voice and the tone of your different content in three words or less.

3. Content-Specific Guidelines 

No two types of content are the same. The way you write your email campaigns should differ significantly from the way you write your advertisements—without losing the voice you established earlier. That's where tone comes in. Outline all content your organization creates, from online newsletters to technical specifications and everything in between, and establish the tone by asking these questions: 

  • Who is reading this? What's their frame of mind? 
  • What is the goal of this content? 

Once you establish the tone (in three words or less), provide examples and outline a few helpful tips for creating the content. 

4. Examples of Good vs. Bad 

You can preach best practices all day long, but sometimes you need concrete examples to make it stick. For every section in the style guide, give your organization an ideal example and one that misses the mark. For instance, if you've outlined a conversational, straightforward voice for your content: 

Write like this: “If you prefer data without the analytics jargon, it might be time to invest in a tool that answers your website questions in a simple way.” 

Don’t write like this: “If typical analytics data is far too complex, you must purchase a tool with a simpler interface that provides you the information you need.” 

5. People-Centric Language 

Regardless of your industry, you're bound to write about people at some point. It can be easy to overlook, but it's important to remember how you talk about them. Consider writing about people as their whole selves and not by their characteristics or limitations.  

For instance, if you're talking about someone with a disability, don't use terms that equate them with their disability like “the deaf” or “the disabled.” Instead, use “people who are deaf” or “people who use a wheelchair." When it comes to age and gender, your team may decide to only mention these things when they're relevant to the content, and you may choose to avoid gendered terms like "stewardess" or "businessman." Ultimately, it's up to your organization to decide how you want to write about people—but at the very least, address it.

6. Organization-Specific Policies

A lot of companies choose to follow standard style guides in their country like the AP Stylebook, CP Stylebook, or Oxford Style Manual, but that can only go so far. Your team might decide to deviate by capitalizing certain product names, abbreviating words like "OK," or finally giving in to the Oxford comma. Whatever you choose to do, own it—it's your style guide, after all.

Make it a habit to comb all new content for policy violations. Better yet, implement an automatic system that scans for policies as more and more content is added to your website. 

7. Tricky Word List

Dedicate a special section to those industry terms and everyday words that have multiple spellings or are consistently misspelled. (Think "ecommerce" vs. "e-commerce," "webpage" vs. "web page," "behavior" vs. "behaviour," and so on.) By clearly defining how you want certain words to be written, you've already begun tackling the challenge of maintaining consistent web content. 

For more style guide ideas and policies to strengthen your online content, download the web guide 8 Must-Have Policies for Protecting Your Digital Presence.

Download the Web Guide

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