8 Essential Elements of an Editorial Style Guide

how to write editorial guidelines

Whether you’re looking to take your blog to the next level or you’re just getting started, an editorial guide is key for any content marketing enterprise. You might be under the impression that your blog is too small to warrant such a guide, or that it’s best to save it for later after you’ve gotten the content ball rolling, but in actuality, editorial guidelines don’t have to take long to lay out and, trust me, they’re worth every minute you spend on them.

Let’s take a look at some of the advantages of having an editorial style guide as well as the essential elements, so you can get started on creating your own right away.

What is an editorial style guide?

In short, an editorial style guide is a document used to tell content contributors, editors, managers, and the like how to write for your brand. It covers anything from grammar and punctuation to formatting to brand tone. You know all those things you wish a new writer would just know from the beginning about writing for your brand? A style guide is where you put all that information. 

Why is it important to have an editorial style guide?

Still not convinced you need one yet? 

Here are some of the advantages to be gained from a thoughtful, clearly written editorial guide for your blog. 

  • It saves time onboarding new freelancers, employees, and agencies.
  • It ensures consistency throughout your blog.
  • It saves editors and managers time.
  • It allows your brand to put its best face forward with every piece of content you publish, no matter who produces it.

In short, you’ll save everyone a ton of time and effort. So what are you waiting for? Let’s get started!

What should be included in an editorial style guide?

Just as with every brand, every style guide is different. I’ve seen dozens of guides over the course of my career, and no two have been alike. However, there are some vital elements that the best ones have in common:

  1. Audience and purpose 
  2. Tone and voice
  3. Spelling and grammar preferences
  4. Sources and links
  5. Word count
  6. Format
  7. SEO best practices
  8. Submission guidelines

1. Audience and purpose 

I would argue (and so would my Argumentative Writing professor in college) that the single most vital thing for a writer to understand is their audience. Without this information, it’s impossible to write on a subject. 

In this section of your guide, describe the readers of your blog. Include as many audience insights as you can, which will be especially helpful for agency partners or freelancers who are unfamiliar with your industry.

Next, what is the purpose of your content? Obviously content marketers strive to generate traffic and interest in their brand or product. The most effective blogs have an additional purpose — to solve problems for their audience with expert tips and advice. In this section, explain the challenges you’re trying to solve with your content. As a bonus, this clear statement of purpose will help your content team generate relevant ideas for article topics.

2. Tone and voice

One of the most distinctive qualities of any blog is its tone and voice — which can also be called its personality. Use the following questions to define these for your content creators:

  • Do you use the first person, the first person plural, or do you prefer to stick to third?
  • How formal is your writing? Conversational, conservative, or newsy?
  • What sort of personality traits might your content exhibit? For instance, warm and friendly or detached and technical?
  • Are individual writers allowed to express their unique personalities in their writing, or must all content conform to an approved brand voice?

3. Spelling and grammar preferences

Hey, we all have our quirks — and with content, this is especially true when it comes to spelling and grammar conventions.

Here are some of points you can address under this section:

  • Do you use any British variant spellings?
  • Which do you prefer — Serial/Oxford commas for lists or AP style? (I’m totally on #teamOxford by the way.)
  • Do you like to put spaces on either side of em dashes — like this — or do you prefer them unspaced—like this?
  • Do we number headings with the # symbol or with a period (“1.” vs. “#1″)

Also, if there’s a style guide that you generally adhere to, such as AP or Chicago Manual, this is a good place to mention that.

To make things easier, consult with your editors on this section so they can address some of the most frequent issues they have to correct. Get as detailed as you want here. The more guidelines you provide up front to your writers, the more time you’ll save on editing. 

4. Sources and links

One of the biggest challenges editors encounter in blog content is linking. While linking is an SEO best practice and great for backing up claims and statistics, not all links will build your credibility.

While it may seem like common sense for most writers, it’s always a good idea to emphasize the importance of choosing high-quality links. Be as specific as possible when defining your quality standards. Here are some questions to get you started:

  • How many links to internal and external websites do you prefer per article?
  • How recent do survey data and other research need to be? (We generally shoot for data from the past 1-3 years.)
  • Do you have minimum DA (domain authority) link requirements?
  • How do you prefer to format anchor text? Do you bold it? Do you prefer to hyperlink just a single word?
  • If you list sources at the end of articles, what format is preferred?

It may also be worthwhile to remind writers to link to the original study online rather than use a secondary source that refers to it.

5. Format

In the “Format” section of your style guide, you’ll talk about how you like articles to be structured  discussing — for example, your proclivities for bullet points and subheads.

If you have special article types — how-to guides versus listicles, for example — it’s a good idea to explain the differences in formatting for each one. If you have a preferred word count range, or maximum word count, you can mention it here.

6. SEO best practices

SEO considerations are likely a major factor in your content strategy. To ensure your content ranks high on search engines, it’s important to spell out best practices for writers, such as:

  • How many links to use per article
  • How to incorporate primary and secondary keywords
  • How to format headers
  • Any other formatting best practices

Check out this complete guide to SEO for blogs by Backlinko for more ideas on optimizing content for search engines.

7. Imagery 

We’ve talked a lot about words so far, but don’t forget about the pictures. Here are some of the items you can include in this section of your style guide:

  • The types of imagery you provide — illustrations, graphics, or pictures
  • Examples of suitable imagery
  • Preferences for pictures — Are stock photos okay, or do you prefer candid shots? Should models be looking directly into the camera or should they pretend not to see it? 
  • Preferred image sizes
  • The best places to find images
  • How you source images 
  • Whether or not you include captions
  • How many images you require per article 

8. Submission guidelines

To streamline your content workflow, I recommend including instructions for writers on how to submit content. Some of the points you may cover include:

  • Preferred file formats 
  • Whether or not to include imagery
  • Where to send or upload your drafts 
  • Author bio and imagery requirements

Editorial style guide examples

Here are some editorial style guide examples to inspire you.

The University of North Caroline at Chapel Hill Branding and Identity Guidelines

UNC Chapel Hill editorial style guidelines example
Source: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Montclair State University Editorial Style Guide

Montclair State University editorial style guidelines example
Source: Montclair State University

Mailchimp Content Style Guide

Mailchimp editorial style guidelines example
Source: Mailchimp

Your unique editorial style guide

There are no absolute criteria for an editorial style guide — yours will be as unique as your brand and the content you produce. Feel free to be as broad or detailed as you want. As long as you address these key components above as you write your guide, you’ll end up with a document that will be tremendously useful to your content team and make everyone’s lives easier — and who wouldn’t want that?

Looking for a partner to help you make great content? Contact our team to get started today.

Jesse Relkin

Jesse Relkin is the founder and CEO of C-POP. She has been a freelance writer and content marketing professional for more than a decade, with experience in content strategy, SEO, social media, PR, and more. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.