If you’re a freelance writer or editor, you’ve hopefully encountered a content style guide at least once. This document is a guide to communicating in the preferred way of your client’s brand or business. With the number of freelancers bemoaning the lack of a style guide (see the replies to this poll) or complaining about 50-page guides, it’s obvious that some marketers need help with this. I’ve worked as a marketer for both B2B and B2C brands and as a writer, I’ve seen many a style guide in my day. I’ll walk you through how to create a content style guide (that’s actually useful), show you what to include, and give you a FREE template at the end of this post.
Why Should You Create a Style Guide?
Imagine you were leading a group choreography performance, but every one practiced at home to a different song… and came up with their own moves individually. How would that go?
Yeah, I figured you’d say no to that. But that’s what it’s like when you give your writers a topic, and even a brief — but no style guide. Chaos. Some good writers may figure it out, but they’ll still miss the mark on things they shouldn’t.
Some writers will have spaces around their em-dashes, others won’t. Writers in Europe and Africa might use British spellings, while the Americans will go the American route. Some writers will sound more formal than others, while others will use contractions generously. You get the idea. But a style guide solves more than nit-picky grammar issues. Inconsistent content (caused by a lack of a style guide) can:
- Frustrate great writers on your team
- Lead to multiple rounds of revisions (wasted resources)
- Negatively impact your brand’s reputation
Some content managers avoid having a style guide by relaying the same instructions every time they hire new writers, which is just tedious and will leave information falling through the cracks.
You need a style guide. Now, let me show you how to create one.
How to Create a Content Style Guide
Many people confuse their brand style guide with their content style guide. They’re not the same. Content style guides are all about content — not your font or your logo or your colors. And often, the 3-5 presentation slides (that follow such brand guides) about the general tone of voice and brand mission are not enough to guide writers. Let’s look at some specifics to consider when building your content style guide.
How Long Should a Content Style Guide Be?
No content style guide should be over 10 pages long. That’s why the AP stylebook, Chicago Manual of Style, and other guides exist. Your style guide shouldn’t be a textbook that writers have to refer to every step of the way. It should be a framework with some rules, but also guiding principles they can apply even as they exercise creative freedom.
The content style guide should also be a living document that is regularly updated as writers run into new dilemmas and tricky scenarios — or if you realize that something you liked no longer works. Your guide will not, and should not cover every possible style issue your writers will face. It’s not a reasonable expectation.
What to Include
Your content style guide should include two main sections:
Brand Style Guide
This section reveals your brand’s mission, voice and tone, and target audience
- Brand’s Mission: Sharing 3-5 sentences about your company’s mission and main objectives will help freelance writers better understand their role.
- Voice and Tone: Is your brand’s writing style conversational or is it more formal? Who do you want to be for your readers: the friendly expert or the aloof academic or somewhere in between?
- Target Audience: Whom do you want your writers to visualize as they write? If you have a buyer persona, it would help your writers to have a few lines about who they are and what their pain points are.
Editorial Style Guide
Although in the voice and tone section, you might give a brief overview, this editorial section is where you dig into the nitty-gritty of your content’s style.
- Language: Remind writers to write clearly (give examples if you can of what to do and what not to do), inclusively, and in an accessible way.
- Grammar: You likely can’t fit in all the grammar rules, so pick the ones that grind your gears the most. I like to include whether writers should use British or American English here.
- Keyword Guidelines: If you write chiefly SEO content, you may want to give your writers tips for including the keyword throughout the piece. This can save you from keyword stuffing or writers forgetting to use the targeted keyword.
- Source Guidelines: If you have specific source guidelines, they should go here. These include competitor sites to avoid, ways to identify reputable sites (you may prefer to link to .gov links or industry experts, for example).
- Formatting: Depending on your CMS and preferences, you may need writers to follow certain formatting rules. These can include deleting all spaces between paragraphs or not numbering or bolding subheadings. Add them here.
- Miscellaneous: This could include everything from product review guidelines to ways you prefer to write certain symbols or industry terms (like ebook, for instance). If your content includes product reviews, you may choose to share guidelines for choosing products to include and the language to use or avoid, as well as basic formatting tips to follow.
Grab a Free Content Style Guide Template
Creating a content style guide is essential to seamless content production regardless of your industry. When deciding how to create a content style guide, think about your content goals, your brand voice, and how you want to communicate with your target audience. And remember that you can and should update your guide regularly.
To make life easier for you and your content team, I’ve prepared a template with examples for each section. It’s only 5 pages long and you can just customize and tweak my suggestions to fit your brand’s needs. You can grab the template below by popping your email into the box below. It’ll also sign you up for my newsletter (I send one out every other week).