Why do you even bother writing?
More than 2 million blog posts are written every single day. How will people find out your blog in this noise?
Even if they do, will they remember you? Will they come back to read more posts on your blog?
There is no guarantee.
You can ensure a top-notch reading experience to increase chances of retaining your visitors.
Creating well-researched high-quality content is only the start.
Subtle things like the capitalization of words in the title of your posts, acronyms and image credits affect the reader’s experience.
All established print media have a typical “house style.”
Even in the online environment, creating a style guide is important for carving out a distinct brand image for your blog.
As per Wikipedia, “A style guide establishes and enforces style to improve communication.”
A comprehensive guide is called manual of style (MOS) and shorter guide is called style sheet.
Let’s start by looking at some renowned professional style guides:
You should also browse through Yahoo’s Writing for the web style guide (2010 edition).
Before we get into the specific elements of a style guide, I want to convince you how a style guide would be beneficial for your audience.
Reasons why your blog needs a style guide
- To carve a brand identity by standing out from the inelegant crowd – Content creation requires considerable time, money and efforts. If you are investing in content marketing, then do it right. Don’t get drowned in the noise.
- To deliver on your audience’s expectations – The purpose of your content should be addressing the pain points and needs of your customers. If you can solve their problems like a friend, by talking in their language, you win over them.
- To ensure stellar quality content – Every new writer you onboard should not fumble with formatting, language or voice issues. Their focus should only remain on the process of writing. And a checklist or writing guidelines gives all writers peace of mind to concentrate solely on their talent with words.
- Consistent personality and brand values make you an authority – As per Maya Angelou “People don’t always remember what you say or even what you do, but they always remember how you made them feel.” A consistent voice and style makes your readers comfortable. As they get familiar, you build trust. And you are perceived as an authority in the industry.
Still not convinced?
Don’t take it from me.
We have a proficient editor onboard.
Expert Opinion: Shani Raja, Editor at Wall Street Journal(WSJ)
I don’t think anyone can elucidate the nuances of writing style better than an editor of a big media house.
I was able to get Shani Raja, an accomplished editor at WSJ, to share his take on writing style and how blogs can develop an elegance writing style. Here are his thoughts.
How media houses manage a house style with a wide spectrum of writers
All good new organizations have what’s called a ‘house style’ to bring consistency and branding into their product.
All editors must adhere to that style—which helps publications create a unique, recognizable look.
Sometimes, it’s so subtle that many people won’t even notice.
Yet it brings elegance to the finished writing, and takes away anything jarring that could disturb smooth comprehension of the content.
Just look at story headlines. Some news websites will capitalize the first letter of every word; others might make it read more like a normal sentence, capitalizing only the first letter of the first word.
You can get even more subtle. For instance. Look at the spaces in between words and dashes. You have to make sure that whenever you use a dash, the amount of space either side of it is the same in every article.
Then there are things like American or English spelling. You have to edit to ensure you’re not mixing it up. It all goes towards creating writing that is elegant.
Elegance is a concept many good journalists instinctively get. And it goes way beyond issue of formatting of the type I’ve just discussed.
Newspapers and magazines also usually try to forge a consistent writing style—which is really important to give the publication a distinctive voice.
I’m talking about qualities like tone and rhythm. There is normally room for a variety of different voices on a blogging site, but there must be some boundaries that enable you to recognize that particular online cavern.
How blogs and blog editors can shape a distinct voice and elegant style
It’s crucial for blog editors to consider the identity of their site. Sometimes it’s integral to the blog’s identity to have multiple voices, with little overriding control over each blogger’s style.
But I find blog sites that have no consistency of style off-putting. I don’t feel like going back because I can’t identify with it closely unless there is a distinctive style that draws me in.
Sometimes it’s a humorous, cynical tone that’s appealing. Other times, it’s an authoritative regard for facts.
Worst of all is where each writer is allowed to make their own unique spelling or punctuating mistakes. That undermines the blog site’s authority.
The trouble is, very few blog editors have really strong writing skills. So, they don’t have the concepts or even the confidence to edit others’ articles in a way that creates a strong, identifiable voice.
It’s a craft and an art that takes time to develop. And there are so many subtle aspects to it that you can get lost.
I’d advise blog editors, first, to think about their reason for having that website. What are they trying to achieve with it?
After uncovering that purpose, you get a feeling for the appropriate tone— for example, authoritative, funny, sarcastic, cynical, poignant, chatty.
You also get a sense of the kind of rhythm that’s most suitable for it: fast-paced, or slow and thoughtful; jagged or smooth.
Then you need to make sure your content consistently captures that mood. That’s a big draw for readers. They are as much attracted to the ‘feel’ of your site as its content.
Shani is also a proficient teacher at Udemy and a writing coach. I am a student in his elite writing course where he discusses the subtle, obvious and not-so obvious aspects of writing. I would strongly recommend you to check out the course.
The essential elements of a blog style guide
Now, that you have this far, I assume you are serious about creating a style guide for your blog. Without further ado, here are the essential elements of a style guide you can consider.
Type of content – State the kind of content your audience likes the most based on analytics. Do they like reading graphic heavy content? Do they like text heavy 1000+ word articles?
Example: Coffee and Food blog audience might like recipes. Internet Marketing and technical blog audience might like (video) tutorials, data based industry infographics and in-depth how-to posts.
Your target audience and their specific demographics – This is to make sure that the writer gives relevant examples and shares relevant stories in his article.
Lead paragraph and summary – The starting of your article should intrigue the reader. Stories are of great interest for most people. You can also start with surprising statistics or ask questions addressing problems of your readers. Experiment with various possibilities to find what works the best for your audience.
Tiny Buddha wants their writers to start with a quote. And they emphasize on sharing personal stories with lessons you learnt from them.
For Neil Patel, using a conclusion sub-heading ensured that readers scrolled down to the bottom of the page. It is good practice to reaffirm the major arguments from your article in the summary. Which brings me to the next element.
Call to action – Towards the end of post, direct the readers to the desired action(s) you want them to take. It can be asking the readers of their opinion and relevant success or failure stories on your article subject.
Or asking them to share the post with their friends on social media. Or asking them to apply strategies from your post one at a time.
Backing of arguments – Supporting your arguments with studies, books and research papers builds credibility and confidence in the reader. Mention some websites from where the writer can quote studies and research papers in your industry.
I search for studies at NN Group and edu websites to support my arguments and even discover new pointers to mention in the article.
Many authority websites ask to refrain from quoting Wikipedia, WikiHow and About articles.
Take a decision on the list of websites you trust for quoting studies.
- Brevity – Mention ruthless editing as an essential pointer in your guide.
Because there aresome words that are absolutelyinessential. They do not add any meaning to your arguments. In a fast paced world,you should aim at delivering value with every word.
- Storytelling – We are all suckers for stories. We love reading about a person’s struggle, how it affected their lives and the lessons they learnt from their struggle. Evoking emotions like hope, anger and excitement hooks the reader. Leverage stories as they differentiate you from the other blogs in industry.
- Length of the posts, paragraphs and sentences – A dense page full of text is appalling to the eyes. On landing at your blog, the visitor should get inspired to read the article.
Besides a pleasing website design, you can ensure an aesthetic appeal by proper spacing in articles.
Every big sentence should be broken into two. Do not drag your audience to read long sentences, paragraphs or posts. 1,600 words is the ideal length of a blog post.
Allow longer paragraphs if the flow of reading breaks. There is no set paragraph length. Occasionally the writers can use one-word paragraphs for drawing attention of the reader.
Instructions on using simple language – The sole purpose of your writing is to help your target audience and add value to their lives. Using official sounding, complex and flowery language makes the reading experience painful. Similarly, passive voice leads to delayed reading comprehension.
Stray away from any jargon. Instruct the writers to use simple language. So simple that ideally a sixth grade student can understand. You can measure your writing’s reading comprehension by measuring its flesch-reading ease (a score above 60 is decent).
In case you are a completely technical blog, your target audience will like complex terms to be used and discussed. So, these simplicity principles might not be valid.
Avoid clichéd and weak words –
Some Weak words really dilute the effectiveness of writing a little bit. That is how it is.
Be specific. Strip weak words and phrases that loosen your writing. Omitting such weak and cliched words will make your writing powerful. And you will deliver your message efficiently.
Here is an ultimate list of weak words that you should avoid in your writing.
Singular or Plural – Do you want the general conversations in the article to be stated in singular or plural terms?
Example: The above pointer on target audience can also be stated as – This is to make sure that the writers give relevant examples and share relevant stories in their article.
Gender – Should the general examples use ‘his’ or ‘her.’ Check your demographic from Google Analytics. If your audience contains majority of females, than using ‘she’ and ‘her’ makes more sense.
Orthography (the method of writing a language)
Font and colors – You should deliver a visually consistent work to your audience. So, specify the color and fonts that your writers can use. Black is the most acceptable font color. If you do want to experiment, then go ahead with it.
If you want to highlight some particular points in a blog – red or other colors can be employed. Bolding and underlining also work fine.
Sans fonts are more readable than serif fonts on screens. Arial is a good option and Comic Sans is not. Choose one font and ensure you are consistent with it across the whole blog. Different fonts in one article can be jarring.
For further detail, read this article on how typography affects user experience and conversions.
Spelling – From which region does the majority of your audience belong? US English and UK English are the most probable spellings you will be using.
Punctuation and hyphenation – What kind of hyphens can writers use, single or double? Clearly mention the situations when writers can use semi-colons and apostrophes. Remember, they are the most ill-used punctuation. If used in a wrong manner, they leave a bad impression and hamper the comprehension of your article.
Capitalization – How do you want to write the titles?
Have a look at BuzzFeed. Every first word in their titles is capitalized.
You can also opt for the standard way of giving titles with only the first letter capitalized.
Spacing – Do you want writers to use single or double spacing after each word? And how much space should be left after every paragraph?
You want to give your readers some breathing space. Ideally, single spaces between words and a line space between paragraphs should be practiced.
Using bold and Italics – In what contexts can writers bold and italicize text? Can both of them be used together (not recommended)?
Since readers scan content, strategic use of bolding text for emphasizing your key points is a good practice. Any quotes from eminent personalities can be italicized.
Acronym and Abbreviations – Will you spell out full forms on every occurrence? Will you define acronyms in every article?
Ideally, you can spill the complete versions on the first occasion. And on the next occurrences you can use the shorter forms.
Using tags and quoting personalities – Direct writers when they should use H2 or H3 tags (if using WordPress). Also, do you want all the eminent personality statements to be put in block quotes? Or simple double quotes will do?
Using bullets and lists – If describing points in the list in detail, you can ask the writers to bold the list title. This will help the reader in scanning through the article.
Here are a couple of questions you should answer in the guide:
- Do you want the lists in an article to be roman numbered?
- Can the writer use bullets and numbers in the sub-headings?
Double version words – Some words can be used in multiple ways. Mention the versions of most common such words that you might be using in your posts.
Example: Website or web site, best selling or best-selling, e-commerce or ecommerce, fast paced or fast-paced.
I know this is a subtle aspect and might even remain invisible to the reader.
But remember that such things affect the reading experience and will go a long way in increasing your brand’s trust and value.
Are you going to allow fragments? Is a degree of grammatical inaccuracy acceptable? Or you want complete sentences like a Grammar Nazi?
My advice is let writers talk in a conversational tone. Break some rules. Because it is okay to start a sentence with conjunctions. That is how people talk. And like reading.
Fragments and conjunctions help in breaking long sentences and improving comprehension. They can be punchy sentence openers. Double negatives when used creatively also draw attention.
Take Hippo for an example – They have engaged with their followers like a friend. And are endeared by their Twitter community.
By shedding all the grammar rules and developing a human voice. See for yourself.
The tone of your blog
This can vary depending on the context, situation, platform and your target audience.
Choose from the following possibilities: conversational, sarcastic, funny, formal, educational, controversial, entertaining, slang etc.
On twitter, you can be casual or funny using acronyms like lol and TLDR.
In an apology letter, your tone will be formal. And in a blog post, the tone can be educational, funny or entertaining.
A conversational and easy going tone is the most preferred across most industries.
To write in such a tone, think that you are talking to someone from your target audience when writing.
Do not mistakenly write in a formal tone just because you are in the B2B industry. Your target businesses are handled by humans. They like chatting and having fun just like everyone else.
Remember, that your tone need not be set in stone. Even metal bands compose soft numbers.
Allow the writers to write in a tone depending on the mood they want to set.
You can occasionally swear to draw attention of your audience. Don’t do it regularly. Else, the strategy becomes powerless and can offend your readers.
As per Amelia Showalter’s A/B email tests, mild curse words like “damn” and “hell” have a positive impact on email open rates. Possibly, because they give the emails an honest and evocative feel.
Sourcing of images
Using original high-quality images with your articles is ideal.
But, what if the images are borrowed from third-party websites? Mentioning a list of websites to source images can prevent you from getting into legal issues (due to copyright infringement).
Also mention these aspects:
- Location of attributing image credits: Below the image or at the bottom of content ?
- Image Alignment: Will images be centrally placed or aligned left?
Further, mention details on the preferred resolution, image size, type, number of images to be used and picking images that ensure a consistent blog voice and style.
For long-form content over 1500 words, use 3-5 images for giving your post a visual flavor. Preferably, the size of the images must be under 100 kb and the type must be JPEG or PNG for better page loading speed.
On Page SEO
This is important to ensure your target audience discovers you through search engines.
Discuss these elements in the style guide:
Links and Anchor Text: How many links can be placed in an article and when can they be used? Fewer than 100 links per page was earlier recommended by Google. But, now Google has taken a stand on being useful to the reader and there isn’t a set number.
Some websites do not allow more than 2-3 links from a single domain as they consider it spammy.
The text used for hyperlinking is called anchor text. As far as possible, avoid using “click here” and “read more” as anchor text.
One option is using brand keywords i.e. the name of website where the hyperlink points. The second is using the title of the article that is hyperlinked.
- Adding tags: If you are on WordPress, 3-5 relevant tags is helpful for content discovery your posts. It’s a good idea ot use tags which you will reuse in future articles.
- Categorizing post: How many categories can one article belong to? Define every category on your website in a line to guide the writer.
- Using keywords: Strategic and natural use of your target keyword in the title, first paragraph of the article, H1 and H2 subheadings and article URL, helps it rank well. You can sprinkle the target keyword in the blog post as well.
Remember that the reader’s comprehension is of utmost importance.
Don’t force keywords at any place in the article. Check out this comprehensive guide on On page SEO.
Using Plugins: For ensuring on-Page SEO, you might have a plugin like the Yoast SEO installed. Give detailed instructions on using them. You can mention using keywords at appropriate places and making the titles and meta descriptions enticing for the reader.
Stand Out Element #1 – Create your brand keywords
This is a unique strategy and will require considerable brainstorming from you. But it will make you an industry leader and is worth the effort.
You know how Google loves favouring brands in search results, right?
You can employ this to create a funky keyword for an innovative strategy that solves your audience’s pain point.
Brian Dean from Backlinko devised an innovative link-building strategy. And called it the skyscraper.
He ended up on the first page of Google thrice. Yeah! You read that right.
So create your own brand adjectives and (maybe) a brand lexicon to explain the terms.
Stand Out Element #2 – Special considerations for mobile
As per Pew Internet Project in 2015, 64% of US adults use their phone as the chief method to go online.
If you have a considerable chunk of mobile audience, you have to cater to the platform needs.
Your font size should be 8-12 points and easily readable (already discussed). Here are some other considerations for mobile.
Strip all unnecessary content and links: A dense small screen with many links equals a painful experience. On mobile, do not present your Pew Internet Project in 2015.
Consider creating a story highlights section. It should contain all the main arguments you state in the article.
Use inverted pyramid structure: The most important information should be stated upfront without any wordplay. This progressive disclosure method is followed by Wikipedia on mobile. This helps focus the reader’s attention on the essential content.
Since mobile is a distracted environment, the introductions of your article should be strong to hook the reader. The titles and sub-titles should also grab attention.
- Don’t hide content in downloadable files: Use only pdf files if required.
- Prioritize the call to action: Direct your readers to take desired action (like sharing the article) early.
As a blogger, decide yourself on the rules that are essential for your blog. It is not necessary to define every aspect and follow all the standards I mention. Feel free to experiment and ask your audience on what they like.
Huffington Post has been challenged for having a big picture and a headline at the top of their home page. But it works for them and they have used this trademark aspect even in their Indian version.
How to create your Blog style guide
There are many elements you can consider in your style guide. But if you want to take action, don’t get overwhelmed. Start with these steps to create a basic style guide for your blog.
- Dig your brand and website history – If your blog or company has been around for a while, look at 2-3 earlier versions of your website. You can use the wayback machine for digging your older versions. Note how your website’s brand, voice and structure have evolved. These should help you determine your inspirations and values.
- Stalk your competitors – Understand how your competitors communicate on different platforms. And how their audience responds.
- Find your target audience – Only after you know them will you deliver on their needs and expectations. Here is a guide on finding your target audience.
- Shape your personality by defining your brand values – Now, that you have an idea of your brand evolution and values, it is time you define yourself.
Describe your brand in 3 words. These should be the things you want your readers to think of you.
Example: Here is what these brands mean to me.
Apple – Innovation, Simplicity, Elegance
Coke – Energy, Universality, Happiness
Now, I want you to take a couple of minutes and define your blog in 3 words.
Now, think of 3 words describing what you are definitely not.
Apple – Conventional, Economical, Ordinary
Coke – Peace, Exclusive, Blue
This exercise will go a long way in building your blog brand.
Create personas – Personas are a way of defining your target and keeping them in mind while writing. They need not be very detailed.
Include a picture of an individual from your target audience. Then, write his pain points, his values, your solutions and benefits from your solutions.
There can be more than one persona for different sections on your website.
Image Credits: blog.bufferapp.com
Congratulations, you have created your blog style guide. It need not be fancy, but should be easily accessible and easy to understand. A simple 1-2 page word or pdf document also works.
You can slowly expand this guide into a comprehensive 10-15 pages guide mentioning all subtle grammar, SEO, image and orthography aspects we talked in the elements section above. It will be helpful for the guest authors and reduce your editing hassles.
Do create a one-page checklist for all writers for speedy publishing.
A style guide is not set in stone.
Your blog might pivot in a different direction. Your audience tastes might change. And your understanding of the audience might improve.
Think of creating the guide as an open-ended exercise. It will grow and modify depending on all the above factors.
Download this free template for creating your content style guide.
Blog style lessons from an Aol. Huffington Media sub-editor a.k.a. me
I have worked as a sub-editor for Aol. Huffington Media’s Indian proprietary CoolAge.in for a couple of years. We had over 100 writers, a team of 6-8 sub-editors and 3 editors for the blog.
My responsibilities included adhering to publishing guidelines of the blog including determining if the content submitted by the writer is suitable for the blog audience, ensuring correct grammar, formatting and image size, etc.
Take these things from me on blog style and voice:
- It constantly evolves with audience needs and demands – The blog started in 2011 targeting only mobile audience publishing 100 word articles with a picture. Soon the desktop version was launched and up to 900 word articles were published. Then with the visuals domination on the internet, graphic heavy content with many pictures was encouraged under a HumorAge section.
- You might have to put efforts for all the new writers – Most new writers will take time to acquaint with the subtleties of your guidelines. Do not expect them to follow all the formatting, writing and image specifications if you are sending 10 page guidelines.
At CoolAge, our editorial team put efforts to make new writers comfortable with tailoring their writing for the blog. But from detailed set of style and formatting guidelines, any normal writer can forget to adhere to one or two guidelines.
Consider preparing a 10 point checklist. At the same time, be ready to make tweaks on behalf of the writer for ensuring style and voice consistency.
- Much of the editing work is tedious– Sometimes publishing platforms like WordPress behave weirdly. You can have formatting issues with your text, since the writer drafted the article in MS Word. The hyperlinks might not be opening in new window, so you will have to fix all of them. Or the images might have not been given proper credits.
All these accumulate to tedious tasks the writer left for you to do. You might end up clicking buttons for half an hour. Be ready for it.
The reading experience for your blog audience should be exceptional. They should easily recognize your articles and derive value from your posts.
Investing time in creating a style guide will ensure that your guest and in-house writers take care of your brand image and shape a unique personality for your blog. Further, all the submissions you receive will be polished, requiring minimal editing.
So, invest time in creating a style guide for your blog.
Have you tried creating a style guide for your blog? What were the elements you defined?
Let me know if I missed any crucial elements or steps you can use for creating a style guide.
Lastly, please share the post with all bloggers and editors who might find this article helpful.
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