216: How to Create a Style Guide for Your Blog (and Why You Should)

How and Why You Should Create Style Guides for Your Blog

In today’s episode, I talk about style guides for blogs – why they’re important, and what elements you should include in yours.

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Hi there. Welcome to Episode 216 of the ProBlogger Podcast. My name is Darren Rowse and I’m the blogger behind problogger.com – a blog, podcast, event, job board, and a series of ebooks all designed to help you as a blogger to start a great blog, to grow your audience, and to build some profit around that blog. You can learn more about ProBlogger over at problogger.com.

Now I’m just back from Dallas. I’ve had a few weeks off from the podcast and it’s been great to get some feedback from some of you that you missed the podcast over the last few weeks. I’m sorry for the break, but I hope you had a little bit of fun digging around in our archives.

As I’ve said, just back from Dallas and we had an amazing time in Dallas. I was at the FinCon Conference where I did the opening keynote and had an absolute ball. I think there was around 1800 financial bloggers, real estate bloggers there. Really great conference, very good community.

And before FinCon, of course, we ran the Success Incubator, a little event that we had as well. We had about 80 or so ProBlogger listeners and some attendees from the previous digital collab events and it was fantastic. We had this full day of training, we started about 8:30, 9:00 in the morning  and went through to about 9:30 at night. It was a big day and that was packed with teaching. We had Pat Flynn, Kim Garst, Andrea Vahl, we had Rachel Miller, Kelly Snyder, a variety of other bloggers as well.

The feedback we had on that day of teaching was fantastic. People loved how intense it was, the fact that we packed in so much information. That was great. And then we had half a day of masterminding the next day, which I always love – that opportunity to sit around the table with bloggers and online entrepreneurs and brainstorm.

You can still pick up virtual tickets for that event, if you go to problogger.com/success. I think they’re US$127 and that gets you the first day, that first full day of teaching. I think it’s about eight hours of teaching and you get the slides as well.

That price will go up. It’s not an early bird one because it’s now after the event, but it will go up in the coming days as well. You get some teachings there on live video creation from Kim Garst, Pat Fynn’s teaching on creating an editorial calendar, promotional calendar for your business, you get some training on Facebook advertising, using challenges to grow your blog, how to sell courses, Steve Chu did an amazing session which I picked up so much information on how he promotes his courses using webinars and Facebook advertising. It’s really practical teaching, and again you can check out the agenda there at problogger.com/success.

On to today’s episode. Today I want to talk about style guides – how to create them for your blog, and why you should create them for you blog as well. Style guides in my opinion are one way that you can really lift a good blog to a great blog by building more consistency across your content, across from one blog post to another.

You can grab today’s show notes with the full transcription of this episode at problogger.com/podcast/216.

Lastly, I should say on our events, stay tuned for news of future events both in Australia and hopefully in the US. We’ll hopefully have some news for you on that in the coming weeks and even months as we begin to plan 2018. Thanks for listening and let’s get onto today’s show.

Today we’re talking about style guides. I want to talk about why you need them, and also how to create one. I want to give you some practical things that you can include in your style guide for your blog.

Now, what is a style guide? Really, as I’ve talked to different bloggers, they mean different things to different people. Some people, a style guide is purely about the writing on your blog. It could be the writing style guide. Other bloggers include a lot more, they will include things like how to use graphics and how the blog should look in terms of colors and the brand. Really, I guess it could be whatever it is for you. But the main reason you want a style guide for your blog is to build consistency in your blog.

Most blogs, if you dig around in them, you begin to see inconsistencies, and this naturally happens. I look back on the early days of ProBlogger and I look at the first posts I wrote and they were all text, there was no images in them at all. That’s a big change that’s happened in blogging. I started blogging in 2002, 2004 for ProBlogger, of course things have changed. The style of my writing has probably matured in that time.

There’s going to be some inconsistencies through your archives, but bloggers run into trouble when one blog post that you write today is different in style and in how it looks to tomorrow’s blog post. That’s the kind of inconsistencies that many blogs have without even knowing it, and a style guide can really help a lot. Something that really can help your readers to feel like they’re reading a unified publication. If you open a magazine, the magazine is designed in way the reader feels even though there is different articles, that they belong next to each other. That’s the type of thing that you want to be doing in your blog post as well.

To state it most simply, a style guide is where you put into writing the guidelines for how you want your blog to be written and presented. And the reason you want to do it is to bring this consistency. This is the type of thing that you’ve probably already got without even knowing it. You’ve probably got a style guide in your mind. Most bloggers have one in their mind, and it’s just because most blogs start out being written by one person.

This is why many of us don’t actually feel like we need a style guide in the early days because we think that we’re consistent. We think that if I’m the only one writing this blog, then it’s going to be consistent from blog post to the next blog post.

But the reality is if you dig around in your archives, and I challenge you to do this, you’ll begin to spot inconsistencies. I think it’s really important to bed down the style that you want into writing, to actually bed it down because you’ll begin to see these inconsistencies in your own writing. Particularly if you want to add new writers into your blog, whether they’re just one-off guest posters of whether you want to bring on a regular writer, this is where a style guide really becomes even more useful as well.

The trouble I see with many blogs is you look through the archives and you can see these inconsistencies. The inconsistencies that you want to be looking for on your blog as you look through your archives are the voice of your writing. What style do you use? There’s a natural exploration of different voices that will happen on many blogs, but generally over time you want to become a bit more consistent with the voice that you use. Are you writing in the first person? Are you conversational when you’re writing? Are you writing for beginners, or are you writing for a more advanced audience? As I say, some variation in this is fine and is natural. But as your blog progresses, you’ll probably want to stick to one voice more and more.

Other areas of inconsistency, capitalization of words in headlines, for example, and I see this all the time. You see one blog post that all the main words are capitalized and then you look at the next blogpost and it’s just the first letter of the headline is capitalized and the rest of it is in lowercase. That may not really irk you, but I bet there are some of you readers who are wondering what’s going on there and they notice that type of thing even if you don’t.

Grammatical rules. For example, when I write ProBlogger, I capitalize P and B, ProBlogger. Even though I present it as one word. As long as that’s consistent, that’s fine. That becomes part of your brand. You might have those type of things as well. On Digital Photography School, we call that blog dPS, the D is generally lowercase and the P and the S are capitals and that becomes part of the brand. But we want to be consistent in that way. It sort of sets us apart I guess in some ways from other people who have used dPS and those other sites out there who do.

Another word that we use a lot both on ProBLogger and on Digital Photography School is ‘ebook’. Ebook is presented in all kinds of different ways on the web. Some people do a little lowercase e and then uppercase B and then present as one word. Other people hyphenate and have it lowercase. Other people just do it lowercase the whole word. Having consistency in that way is important. I see some bloggers who use that word ebook and they will capitalize it differently even within the one article. Again, it doesn’t really annoy me that much, but I know there would be other people who would be having conniptions about that.

Use of images and graphics is another one. This is something I know I’m guilty of from time to time – having consistency in the way you use images. If you put typeface on your words, words on your images, do you have consistency in the fonts you use, the colors that you use, the way you use headlines, the way you use lists and blockquotes, and the way you spell words as well. Do you use a US spelling, American spelling, or do you use a British spelling? This really comes into play when you’ve got more than one author as well.

All of these things can present inconsistencies. Whilst you might look at them all individually and just say they’re small things, they add up. And generally over time they can really become a big thing.

Most single author blogs, you’ll find that most of you will probably have a certain amount of consistency because you write the way you write. You will generally, from post to post, have some consistency. But even single author blogs do change over time. It really does come into play when you have more than one author on your blog.

For example, on Digital Photography School we have a lot of writers. We have about 40 writers, we publish 14 articles a week. There’s a lot of opportunity there for inconsistency because our writers come from across the world, even just on the spelling front. We’ve got writers who come from America, we’ve got writers who come from England, writers who come from Australia, and there’s different spelling of words. Then we’ve got readers who come from all of those places as well. To make a decision upfront that we are going to use the American spelling because that’s where most of our readers come from and most of our authors as well, brings some consistency to that.

Whilst it’s not going to suit all of our readers, at least our readers will see that we’re consistent in that. When you’ve got 14 posts a week from 14 different authors, there’s incredible potential for a very messy looking blog, in terms of the writing but also how things are presented. Style guides do become more important as you add more people into your blog but I think they’re still important even if you’re a single writer, single author blogger, because you’ll find naturally over time that you’ll change some of your style as well.

So how do you create this simple style guide for your blog? What should you include? How detailed should it be? As I mentioned earlier, it’s going to vary a lot from blog to blog. I know some bloggers for instance who have a style guide and they keep it purely to writing – how the writing on the blog should appear. Whilst other bloggers include more broader guidelines like what brand colors should be used.

Some people have two style guides for the two different things. I have a brand style guide and a writing style guide. I think it’s okay to merge those things a little bit together. And so what I want to present to you today is a simplified one.

I want to give you four or five different areas that you want to make some decisions about and create a little document. And I’m thinking here that you could create a document that’s maybe one to two pages long. You don’t need anything more detailed than that to start with. You will find though over time that you can evolve this document.

And I think it should be a living document because you will find over time that there will be more opportunity to add new things in, partly because you might start using different technologies or you might add in different types of content. You might add in some video over time, or there’ll be new opportunities to add in new authors who will bring up different things for you. This is a living document but what I want to give you are some things to include at the beginning of the creation of this.

Four or so things to include. The first one is a short description of your audience. I think who is reading your blog really should be the basis for most of the decisions you are making regarding content and what is in this style guide. Ideally, what you want to create is some kind of avatar or persona or reader profile for your blog. I talked about this in Episode 33 where I actually talked through how to create an avatar for your blog and we actually did an article on ProBlogger recently that gave you a template for creating an avatar for new blogs. I think that’s a useful exercise to do.

You may not want to include that full avatar in your writing style guide, but at least referring to it and including a sentence or two about who you are writing for, because ultimately that should be informing all the decisions that you make. Include a sentence or two about who is reading your blog, and maybe refer to the avatar if you’ve done that exercise. That’s point number one.

Number two is to, again, just in a few sentences, describe the voice that you want your content to be written in, or the tone. How do you want your content to sound or come across to your readers. Even if you just brainstorm a few words that would describe the type of content that you want to create. For example, do you want your content to be conversational? Or do you want it to be authoritative? or do you want it to be humorous? Do you want it to be sophisticated, educational, friendly, irreverent, comprehensive? These words will begin to help you and any other writers you may bring on to understand the tone that you want, the voice that you want in your content.

Over time, you’re probably going to say, “I want all of those types of content in my blog.” And that’s totally fine on a blog. But generally you’ll want to keep some consistency on it, and over time you’ll want more and more of your content to fit into a certain style. That’s going to help your readers to engage with you and to build a relationship with you, and to learn from you more as well.

So a few sentences there on your voice.

If you want to learn a little bit more about developing your voice, you might want to go back and listen to episode 166 of the ProBlogger podcast where I give you 15 types of voices that you can write in. But even just doing that brainstorm of a few words that will describe the voice that you want to write in can be useful as well. There’s no reason why you can’t change that later. This is a starting point for you.

Number one was to describe your audience. Number two is to describe the voice – the tone of your writing. Number three we want to get a little bit more into the nitty gritty of things and to talk about spelling and grammar, which I know some of you are squirming about and I’m one of those people. It doesn’t come naturally to me (I’m not a details person), but I think it’s important to address this.

Most larger publications, most media would adopt the spelling and grammatical guidelines of an external style guide. There actually are… whole style guides have been written. One very common one is the AP Stylebook. I’ll link to this in the show notes today. There’s another one called the Chicago Manual Of Style. Again, I’ll link to that today.

Both of these you can buy. I think the AP Stylebook for example is pretty affordable. I think it’s US$22.95 for the print edition, and I think there’s an online version of it as well which is about $25. It may be that you want to get that.

And basically, as you look through them, they’re very extensive outlines of all the rules of grammar and spelling that you might come across. Many media will just say we adopt the AP Stylebook or we adopt the Chicago Manual Of Style and they give all their writers access to these books so that if there’s ever a question of what they should be including or how they should be spelling a word or how they should be using grammar, they can just refer to that.

This may be overkill if you are just a single author blog. Or you may actually want to do that if that’s something for you. If it’s overkill for you, all you really need in this section is to address some of these types of things. Firstly, spelling. Do you adopt American or British spelling, and this will probably be determined by who you are and who you author and who your readers are as well. I’m an Australian, so if I was writing for an Australian readership, I’ll probably adopt the British spelling because that’s the way Aussies tend to go. But I have predominantly US readers and so I have adopted the American spelling, even though it doesn’t come naturally for me. It’s something that I do need to edit myself on.

Other things that you might want to include in the spelling and grammar section of your style guide are things around punctuation and capitalization. For example, the use of commas. I’m not going to go into the debates around the use of commas. This is perhaps a discussion for another day. There are people who get very fired up about commas and I don’t really want to get into that today. But as long as you’ve got a consistent use of commas, that’s important.

The use of capitalization in headlines. The use of exclamation marks. I know some bloggers hate exclamation marks and they don’t allow them on their blogs. You may choose to do something else. Anything around punctuation, capitalization should be included.

The use of numbers. Will you use numerals or will you spell them out? That may be something that you want to include in this section.

Particularly pay attention to any regularly used troublesome words. Words like ebook, for example, where there can be a lot of inconsistencies. If you’re using the word ebook or if you have a brand name like ProBlogger where you capitalize the P and the B, you want to include that type of thing in this section as well.

You might also want to include guidelines around the use of acronyms, particularly if you’re in a niche or a topic where acronyms are used a lot. How are you going to introduce an acronym in an article? For example, you may choose to explain the acronym when you first use it in an article. If it was AOL, I know it’s a bit of an old-fashioned one, the first time you use that acronym in the article you may want to have in brackets what that means and actually spell out the words, and then from then on just use the acronym.

These are the types of things that you can include into your spelling and grammar section of your style guide.

The fourth section that I’ll include you to think about is more about how you want your content to look, and some other factors as well. And this I’ve just kind of lumped into an other style guidelines section.

Let’s talk about images in your article. How many should your article have? For example, on ProBlogger we always want an image. On Digital Photography School we always want an image. That is part of our style guide – we have to have an image. And so anyone writing for us has to help us find that image. Should there be an image? How many images are okay? You might want to have a limit on how many images. It’s up to you.

How should those images be captioned? Do you want captions on every image? Only where the image requires a caption? And also how do you want to attribute the photographers of those images? Do you want to do that in the caption, or do you want to do it somewhere else in the article? These are the types of things that you might want to include into your style guide.

How big should the images be? How many pixels? How they should be aligned? Do you want them to be full width? Do you want them to be aligned left, to be aligned right? Where can people source them? You may even want to include which stock library you use, and give details there for people.

Also, the use of typeface in images. If you’re doing graphic overlays, what fonts should be used? What colors should be used? These are things that can really be mixed up a lot, and you can end up with a very messy looking blog because you’ve got lots of inconsistencies there. Do you want your logo to be included in those text overlays?

These are the type of things that will really have a big impact upon the visualization of your content and how people see your content, and what they feel about it as a result.

You might want to also include in there that you want very dark images or you want very light, washed out kind of images. Those types of stylistic considerations may come into play there as well.

Other things that you might want to include are around your headlines or titles. For example, how long do you want them to be? Do you have rules around the length of them? Some people do that for SEO considerations – they don’t want long headlines. Do you want headlines that are more keyword rich, more descriptive, or do you want more curiosity, clickbaity-type headlines? These are the types of things you might want to include.

The length of paragraphs might be something? Do you want short paragraphs. Are you okay with longer paragraphs? I know a couple of bloggers who actually have word limits or how many lines the paragraph should take up because they don’t want their paragraphs to be too long.

The use of lists. Do you require numbers or bullets, or are you okay with either?

The use of headings or subheadings. Which H tags should you use? This is really useful for anyone who’s coming onto your blog. Most people know how to use a H tag, but you may have some rules around what order they should be in or how many H2 tags or how many H3 tags you might want to have.

It’s getting a little bit technical here. But these are the types of questions that some of your authors will have over time.

You might want to include things around how to use bold or italics or underline or strikethrough. I personally don’t like strikethrough in my text on my blog. Underlining is something I don’t generally do. But bold and italics we allow for some emphasis. But within reason – we don’t want every third word being bold or in italics.

The use of block quotes. How to cite sources. Do you want to use quotes? Do you want to put all quotes in block quotes?

Also guidelines around linking as well. Do you want to have nofollow tags on your links, or only when they’re paid, sponsorship type things?

All of these questions it’s important to include in there so that as a writer is creating content, they can be having their questions answered without having to keep coming back to you all the time. It’s going to cut down the work that you have to do in editing the content, but also it’s going to speed up their writing process as well.

You might want to include word count limits if you want all articles to be over 500 words. Or maybe you want all articles to be over 2000 words. Again, it’s going to help to bring some consistency to your content.

Embeddable content. Do you allow people to embed content – YouTube videos or Vimeo videos or even social media? Do you require that type of thing? I know some bloggers that every post they have, they want to have some embeddable content. Again, all of these things can be factors for you.

You may look at this list that I’ve created (and you’ll be able to see it all in the show notes today) and you may say, “This is overkill. I don’t need to go into this detail”. But over time you probably will find that you will include most of these things, particularly if you’re adding new authors because you’ll find authors will bring their own style and some of it will clash with what you just assume everyone will want to do as well.

Other things that you might want to include in your style guide are things that you want your authors to do after they’ve written their post. For example, if you have a plugin like Yoast (the SEO plugin), if you’ve got that you’ll be familiar with some of the additional fields that are in the backend of your WordPress.

For example, you have the ability to write a particular title and description just for Facebook or just for Twitter. You may want to do that yourself, or you might want to ask your authors to do that as well. If there’s anything in there like click-to-tweet plugins, you might want to include those. Do you want the author to do that? In your style guide you might want to include a little checklist of other things that you want people to do as well.

You might also want to get your authors to find further reading from your archives and link to those. You might want to have some guidelines around choosing categories or tags, or anything else that you might want to do around SEO. Do you want them to use certain keywords in a certain number of times? And also some guidelines around author bios as well.

All of these are factors that you might want to include in your style guide. The thing I would say to you is if you’re listening to this and think this is just overkill, that’s okay. You can start with a very simple one. You might just want to have in yours your audience, who they are, the voice that you’ve got, the spelling that you use, and that may be enough for the early days and then you can begin to add in extra things as you think of them, as you come up with potential inconsistencies in your blog.

A really simple exercise that you might want to try is just to go back through your archives and dig back to this time last year if you’ve been blogging for a while, and look at some of the article’s that you’ve got in your archives and just look for those inconsistencies. Maybe randomly choose ten of your posts and look back through them.

Pay attention to the images, the way you’ve used images. Pay attention to headlines. Pay attention to the introductions or the conclusions of your articles. You’ll begin to see over time that things in your archives grate on you, things in your archives you’ll cringe at a little bit, And they will be signals to you that they’re things that you might want to put into your style guide that you don’t want people to do as they write for your blog.

Create this style guide and put it in a place which you can easily refer back to yourself and as you bring on authors. Build it into your orientation for new authors as well. On Digital Photography School, we’ve now got a fairly comprehensive style guide, but it also includes other things that we want our authors to know. We created almost like a guidebook that we give to any new author who comes on, and it answers things like style guides but also shows them how to submit posts to be edited, and how to log in and how to set up their author bio, these types of things as well. We’ve actually created a little orientation system that our editors are able to walk a new writer through.

You want your style guide to be easy to refer to, easy to edit. As I said it right upfront, you want it to be a living document.

Involve your writers. If you do have a team, involve them in the creation of the style guide as well, and make note of any question they ask you. As a new author that comes on, any question they ask you is probably a question that someone else is going to ask you later on. So include the answers in your style guide in that orientation book as well.

It does take a little bit of work to setup a style guide. But it’s the type of thing that is going to improve your content over time. It’s going to reduce the tension and the clashes that your readers have with your content as well over time. There are certain segments of your readership who will notice this type of thing, and if you can remove these little barriers for them engaging with your content, it’s going to have a massive impact over time. And it’s going to help you to come across as a much more professional publication as well.

So work hard on setting it up, and then I guess the other part of it is work hard on being consistent and actually adopting the style that you set down as well.

Thanks for listening, I’ve got today’s show notes over at problogger.com/podcast/216, and I’ve also included today in the show notes some further reading and some further listening. I actually did a podcast with Beth Dunn a little while ago on how to write in a more human-like way, how to sound more human in your writing. We talked a little bit in that episode about style guides. Go and listen to that one as well.

Also, there’s three articles there that have been written by the team at Canva, another one by the team at Buffer, and another by the team at HubSpot which really do give you some really good ideas for how to create a style guide and some of them even have templates that you can fill in as well.

Check out the podcast show notes today at probloger.com/podcast/216 for that further reading, and for a summary of what I’ve talked about today.

Thanks so much for listening, I’d love to hear what you think about today’s episode. You can leave a comment on the show notes or check us out on Facebook, the ProBlogger Community Group and there’ll be a link there where you can share your comments on today’s episode as well if you’ve got any questions or other suggestions to add. Thanks for listening and I look forward to chatting with you next week in Episode 217 of the ProBlogger podcast.

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