Writing great content at scale is hardly achievable by just winging it. Whether you are a solo content writer or a team, you need discipline, consistency and focus.
Things can easily go awry in the absence of a single set of guidelines to adhere to. It also compromises the efficiency and consistency.
So when working on content creation for a business, what all stakeholders need is specific guidance to be able to understand the brand’s content strategy, mission and expectations.
This guidance is imparted in the form of two documents: style guide and content briefs.
The brand’s style guide and copywriting briefs together act as the glue that holds the team together and helps in accomplishing the intended content deliverables.
This document you’re reading is the style guide developed for Smemark employees and partners, but we hope it’s a useful reference for anyone.
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Content Writing Style Guide Explained
As I mentioned, every business needs at least two documents for the content creation staff or contractors to be able to produce cohesive content.
When a set of guidelines is meant for the overall content produced by a company, it’s known as a style guide. It’s a set of high-level instructions to be followed by all the content produced by the brand.
Style guide tells everyone how all the content is to be written and delivered. It’s the document that provides necessary direction and context for a brand’s content writing activities.
However, note that each individual piece of content may also have its own set of specifications to be met. This is where a content brief comes in. We have written more about content briefs here.
Using this guide can help content designers benefit from our experience to date, and build trust by communicating in a consistent manner.
Creating Your Own Style Guide
To create a style guide for a business, all you need to do is create a document with certain guidelines, to be followed by everyone involved in content creation.
Now, the question is, what will be the structure of this guide, and how will you come up with rules to include?
The good news is you won’t have to think of these guidelines and categorize them from scratch.
As a result of working with hundreds of large and small organizations on content related projects, we have seen and written my fair share of style guides.
When it comes to writing for the web, there are certain standard best practices which always hold true, regardless of the nature of your brand and target audience.
As a result, more than 80% of guidelines are the same in all the good style guides. The remaining correspond to a brand’s unique personality, tone and voice.
So the easiest way to start building your own style guide is to refer to a style guide available in the public domain by an organization known for its writing standards.
Smemark Style Guide License
If you work for your own or another organization, the Smemark style guide is in the public domain worldwide. Additionally, we waive copyright and related rights in the work worldwide.
We encourage you to make a copy of this guide and adapt it to your organizational needs.
Once you have a draft document with all the guidelines you borrowed from this style guide, find the parts which would be different for your business. The next step is to modify these parts to make the style guide unique to your brand.
If a certain section isn’t relevant to you and your team, delete it. And if you feel the guide is missing a section, by all means, add it.
Depending on how much you know about writing for the web and the clarity you have on your brand identity, you can either do this part on your own, or in collaboration with your team.
Our Content Writing Approach
Before we get to specific rules and best practices, it’s important to understand the principles on which these guidelines are based.
While the rules explain how to do something in a certain way, the principles tell why. So having a grasp of root basics makes it easy to follow particular rules.
The Principle of Readability
Most people are used to writing the same way they did in their high school/college days. But academic writing is not the same as writing for the web.
Studies show that most visitors scroll through only about 50-60% of web content. You want your audience to continue reading your content beyond the first few sentences. So make it dead simple to read and skim.
The Principle of Empathy
When it comes to good content writing, empathy is everything. You must have a clear picture of who your target audience is.
At Smemark, our target audience consists of content and marketing professionals, business owners and C-level executives, along with solo content creators.
When writing a piece of content, get in your readers’ shoes. Ask yourself: Who is going to read this? What do they need? Also think of words to describe how your reader may feel about this topic.
Then use this information to personalize your content so it speaks directly to them. Help people get to what they need fast and easy.
The Principle of Utility
Our content is practical and useful. To write for Smemark, you must provide actionable, mind-blowing information that readers can actually use, not your run of the mill rehashed web content.
Content Writing Guidelines
Now that you’re aware of the root principles, the guidelines help you apply the principles in actual writing. This is where the rubber meets the road.
Address The Reader As ‘You’
Refer to the reader as you whenever possible. For example:
You can contact us at email@example.com.
Learn more about your monthly membership.
If you are writing content for multiple audiences, address the primary segment as you and refer to secondary readers by their roles or titles.
Use Active Voice
Passive voice is usually wordy and hard to follow. Active voice supports brevity and makes content engaging.
It also helps the reader identify the subject of the sentence. For example:
Passive: The application form must be submitted to the review committee.
Active: Submit the application form to the review committee.
A good rule of thumb is to avoid writing in a way that makes actions seem like they happen without anyone doing them.
Big walls of text with no subheadings make it really hard for people to read, or even just understand on a high level what the post is about.
On the other hand, subheadings (using H1 and H2 tags) are visual cues that guide readers through your piece.
You must use subheadings so that a reader can quickly skim through to get an overview and understand the flow of your article.
When you split your article by subtopics, also make sure that your subheadings are interesting and descriptive.
Short Sentences & Paragraphs
Ideally, a paragraph should not be more than 3-4 sentences. And a sentence should not have more than 10-15 words.
If you notice a paragraph or sentence getting longer than that, it’s better to split it into two parts.
Here’s an example of how you might transform a too-long sentence into something more manageable. For example, the following paragraph is unnecessarily long and complicated.
Due to security and operational factors, your boarding passes cannot be replaced if misplaced, lost or stolen. A new voucher ticket must be obtained by accessing abcpark.edu website and completing the same process to access a new voucher ticket.
The same information could have been conveyed in simply and concisely like this:
Regrettably, we can’t replace lost or stolen passes. You can get a new one by visiting apcpark.edu and registering again.
Use Bullet Lists
When writing content, ask yourself: Can this piece be conveyed better with a list?
Readers love lists. Here’s why:
- Lists are simple, scannable and easy to digest
- Lists create white space and give additional room to take a breath.
- Lists make the reader feel they are getting solid information with less effort.
See how effective bullet points are? So whenever you come across a situation where you want to cover a list of associated ideas, use bullet points.
Capitalize the first word of every bullet. Put a full stop at the end of the bullet point only if that point is a complete sentence.
Highlight Important Tips/Sentences
No matter what you are writing about, there will always be a few sentences that you really want the reader to take away from the piece.
Call attention to those takeaways. There are a number of ways to do this. But for the sake of consistency, it’s better to pick just one and stick to it throughout your content. For instance, you can:
- Use the HTML strong tag to make the text bold.
- Turn the given text into a blockquote.
- Make the text appear in a yellow-colored box.
- Enclose the text within strongly-colored borders.
Use this tactic to bring attention only to your most important, full ideas. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself
- Is this something you could tweet to your followers?
- Will they understand it if you add no additional context?
If the answer is yes, go ahead and emphasize it. You’re making the right call.
Remember Plain Language
Web content is not the platform for showing your fancy vocabulary or clever word plays. It should be as straightforward as possible.
Always write in plain, easy to understand language. When we use words that most people would easily understand, our content becomes more approachable, discoverable and inclusive.
Avoid complex sentence structures, or terms that a reader might not know. Using jargon in your writing can cause the readers to lose trust or misinterpret the information.
If you’re struggling to use plain language, try writing as if you were talking to your audience one-on-one.
If you really need to include legal terms or technical jargon, pair it with a short summary or definition up front.
Context & Transitions
There should always be proper context behind everything you write. Don’t assume your readers know as much about your topic or will easily connect one sentence to another without your guidance.
Think about the gaps, background information, blind spots and transitions you need to explicitly state for a reader to fully comprehend your writing.
It’s only when you use appropriate context and transitions that your content reads in a flow like a cohesive piece. Otherwise it’s just a jumbled collection of random lines and paragraphs.
When you start a new paragraph, for instance, you need to make it clear how it connects to the previous paragraph, as required. You can use phrases like “another idea is to ..” or “in addition” and so on.
External Linking / Citation
Wherever possible, find and cite credible and up-to-date research studies and statistics to back up your claims.
Also use external links for adding supplementary information in your content. This should be done only to provide more details that couldn’t be included in your content.
Link to high quality, up-to-date and reputable content only. For example, don’t link to a blog post or statistical study which is more than 5 years old.
Give Specific Instructions
It’s not enough to advise the reader on what to do. Don’t just write simplistic points such as “Get your company on social media” and “Be sure to attend industry networking events.”).
Show them how with an example, template or exact steps. Give actionable information, steps, examples or details readers can put to use.
Focus more on the details of execution - what steps the reader will actually take. Give the exact details on what and how exactly they are supposed to do something. Explain exact steps with screenshots wherever relevant.
Use clear verbs to break processes down into step-by-step instructions. For example,
- Choose from drop-down menus.
- Select or deselect checkboxes and radio buttons.
- Click or tap buttons.
- Follow or open links.
When giving instructions, refer to labels, buttons, and menus exactly as they are on the actual interface.
Use Images When Appropriate
Images are an excellent way to communicate information. Take every opportunity to use relevant photos, graphics, and other visual elements when they clarify what you are communicating. For example:
- Group pictures or images of people working together are great additions to posts about meetups, hackathons, or other events.
- Screenshots can go a long way in explaining design and user experience techniques in how-to pieces.
- Consider GIFs or videos to illustrate functionality, show users a series of steps, or give examples of interactive content in a static post.
Images should be relevant and added in a way that supports the points covered in your content. Do not add a generic stock image just for decoration. The images should have some meaning or convey some information.
Images should not be too small (like less than 600px wide) or too large (like more than 1300px wide). Captions for images should be directly below the image and italicized.
Full-width images that precede body copy should illustrate the theme of the full post, not just one small part.
Make sure you test your content on a phone to ensure the images don’t impede the readability of the text.
Look for images with a CC0 license. If you do use copyrighted images:
- Try to find one with few restrictions on reuse like a Creative Commons Attribution license.
- Get permission from the copyright holder.
- Attribute the photo to the source (especially if required or requested).
- Where possible, link to the source online.
Images must comply with 508 standards and accessibility guidelines. The broad requirement is that any information presented in an image must also be presented in an alternative format (for people who cannot view images).
While 508 compliant is the minimum threshold for our content, we generally hold our work to a higher standard specified by the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines’ (WCAG) AA standard.
This means every image on a web page must have alt text describing the image. Additionally, any text that appears in the image must also appear in the alt text.
Most screen readers already add “Image of” when reading out an image, so alt text like “Image of the 18F logo” is redundant because screen readers will read it “Image of image of the 18F logo.”
A good rule of thumb is to limit alt text to 150 words, anything longer should be placed in the content of the page.
Images that serve solely to illustrate or provide visual interest for other nearby content do not require alt text, but they do require the alt attribute to be present (in code, this is done with alt="").
Otherwise, screen readers will fall back to uttering the URL of the image. Note also that if the image is associated with an action or concept, the alt text should refer to the name of the action or concept rather than the literal description of the image.
For example, if a search field has an image of a magnifying glass to signify that clicking on it will initiate a search, “Search” will be more useful alt text than “Magnifying glass”.
When captioning an image, the goal is to add additional context and information. Don’t simply state what the reader is able to see by looking at the photo itself.
Captions should increase depth and understanding. They are also a good place to include attribution information when images are under a Creative Commons license or other groups have granted 18F permission to use an image.
Make sure to have a descriptive but short file name. For example, based on what the image depicts, instead of using file name such as “Photo123.jpg,” name it as “semrush-seo-tool.jpg.”
When adding photos to your content, reduce the file size of images as much as possible before uploading them by using online compression tools.
If the images you have added are huge in size, the page will take more time to load, which is bad for both search engines and visitors. However, the size should not be reduced to such an extent that compromises on resolution quality.
Use Tables When Appropriate
Tables are generally suitable only for data: two or more “objects” (rows) that share two or more “values” (columns).
In tables, column widths are the same for all rows, which can make them easier to scan visually. Tables are easily navigable for sightless users so long as the content is organized in a logical way. Here are some other guidelines to consider:
- When listing numbers, it’s good practice to align them to the right of their cell, with the same decimal precision (“40.50” and “1.00”) so that the numbers are easier to compare while scanning.
- Always align column headings up with the values in the columns. For example, numeric column headings should be aligned right if the values are, too.
Be Concise & Minimize Fluff
While you want definitive content, it doesn’t have to be unnecessarily long and wordy. Just using more words won’t make a blog post better.
Don’t just focus on the word count. If something can be explained in 10 words, don’t take 50. Write short and to the point. One of the biggest turn off for readers is when they feel like you’re wasting their time.
Appreciate the readers’ time and get rid of the fat and fluff. There is nothing more impressive than tightly edited piece of good content, each part of which is filled with solid, actionable information.
Optimize For Search
Most people look for information using a search engine. If they can’t find your page in search engine results, they won’t reach your content.
To make your content easy to find, you need to think about what would they type in a search engine to find your content. Use their vocabulary and keywords in your content, starting with your page title, summary, and first paragraph.
For instance, use tools like Google Trends to compare different keywords to use in your heading. What you’re calling the topic of your page might not be what your users are calling it. Generally, it’s best to use whichever phrase is used more often.
For a complete list of guidelines to optimize your content for search, refer to our on-page SEO checklist.
I hope these guidelines have helped you understand the significance of a style guide, and given you the foundation to create your own.
Writing content which is consistently readable and familiar has multiple benefits for your brand, as well as your audience. It is easy to consume and understand, while setting an anchor in readers’ mind to solidify brand recall.
When content follows a set of guidelines, there’s a better chance that your audience will continue reading and recognize your voice among several competing brands. And following a well-thought style guide is the only way to make this happen.