Also referred to as an editorial style guide, editorial guidelines are a set of rules dictating the language, tone of voice, grammar, formatting, and punctuation for all content belonging to a publication.
The need for editorial guidelines becomes more important as your blog grows and you start to outsource content writing by hiring freelance writers. ✍️
In our experience, editorial guidelines are not something to get too hung up on (and we’ll explain why in a minute) but are still necessary for consistent content quality and to streamline the editing process.
All you need is a list of simple, concrete, and actionable instructions that writers can easily follow and implement without compromising creativity, which we’ll explain in this post.
But first, you should know…
The Problem with Most Editorial Guidelines
All too often, blog editorial guidelines can be a bit vague, especially when it comes to voice and tone.
SaaS blogs are a prime example of this. Their guidelines will typically state something like “Our tone is friendly yet informative” – which, let’s be honest, doesn’t say a whole lot.
Now, this might be a bit of a hot take but we don’t think style and tone make that much of a difference to SEO blogs. 💁
Important and all as it is, style isn’t what drives repeat visitors to blogs. It’s the quality of the information and how well it’s presented. Let’s face it, nobody really cares whether you use an Oxford comma or not.
We’ve also noticed some editors get way too hung up on editorial guidelines. This energy would be better spent on real performance drivers like CRO and lead capture.
Editorial perfectionism can be detrimental to blog growth. In the early days of your blog, you’ve got more important stuff to focus on, like building your topical authority and sticking to a regular publishing schedule.
What is the Purpose of Editorial Guidelines?
While we certainly don’t encourage perfectionism, you should at least draw up a basic editorial style guide for writers to follow. Why? Three simple reasons:
#1 Build reader trust
Would you trust a website whose content was all over the place with inconsistent and messy formatting? Probably not. 🛑
While a blog doesn’t need to reach crazy high editorial standards to succeed, the content does need to be clean, organized, and error-free. This builds reader trust – especially important if you’re trying to convince readers to buy something.
#2 Achieve a clean look and feel
Inconsistent capitalization, mile-long paragraphs without any sub-headings…not a good look for your blog. And believe it or not, this stuff does make a difference.
If your content formatting is a hot mess, potential buyers will be put off. But by applying the same set of style rules each time, blog articles will look harmonized and professional. And this is where editorial guidelines are key.
An editorial style guide can also be used to inform writers of custom CSS elements unique to your blog such as infoboxes, colored buttons, and when to use them, etc.
#3 Align contributor writing styles
Once your blog starts accepting content from freelancers and guest posters with different writing styles, things can get messy. And next thing you know, you’re spending way too much time on style edits and general housekeeping.
Editorial guidelines are essential to help writers adapt to and reproduce your blog’s style.
Editorial Guideline Examples
To see how the pros present writer guidelines, check out these sources 📚
- Hubspot guest blogging guidelines
- Hackernoon contributor guidelines
- Mailchimp content style guide
- Shopify content style guide
What Should Editorial Guidelines Include?
The editorial guideline examples above go into great detail, covering every possible angle of content and writing style. But it’s one thing if you’re a big brand like Shopify and another if you’re running a small affiliate blog.
What we’re trying to say is, no need to go all out. Just keep it simple.
Using our own examples from The Meta Blog, let’s go through 7 basic points your editorial guidelines should cover.
#1 Language & tone
Specify whether your blog is written in American English, British English, or other.
If you have instructions for tone, make sure to illustrate these with concrete examples to avoid any confusion.
Our writing guidelines also include language instructions such as
- Write in the second person plural (You) and use “We” when writing in the first person
- Always use contractions (e.g. you are >> you’re)
Customize these rules according to your preferences.
Consistent use of capital letters is important for creating a professional look and feel. Let the writer know when to use them and how.
For us, this is always in the H1, H2s, and meta titles. And if there’s any confusion over which titles to capitalize, we encourage writers to use a tool like Capitalize My Title.
#3 Formatting and punctuation
Some stuff we like to include here:
- Use the Oxford comma
- Keep paragraphs short (2 – 3 lines max)
- Each new idea/argument should have its own H2. Any H2 covering multiple related points should consist of H3 subheadings
Don’t forget to include details of any custom CSS elements the writer can include (e.g. Use this type of box for definitions…)
#4 SEO instructions
Got a specific process for on-page optimization or an SEO checklist you use over and over? If yes, let writers know about it in your guidelines. This way you won’t have to go back and optimize content yourself.
For example, you might have certain rules around keyword usage and placement, such as:
- Include the primary keyword in the H1, first paragraph, first H2, etc.
- Ensure the content is aligned with the search intent of the primary keyword
You can instruct the writer to provide a meta title and meta description for each article, along with guidelines for the recommended character length. We always find it’s much easier to write meta information when you’re already in that “writing bubble” and know the topic.
The actual list of SEO keywords to include is specific to the individual post so this would be detailed in the content brief (on that note, don’t forget to check out our free content brief template).
#5 Linking guidelines
As a follow-up to SEO instructions, linking guidelines are pretty important to prevent guest posts from being overrun with backlinks or irrelevant/spammy links.
Some pointers to include in this section:
- Include at least X internal links to relevant content
- Only X number of backlinks allowed per post
- Link to sources for cited data and statistics
- Avoid linking to competitors and low-quality websites (some sites have a minimum DR requirement for external links – we don’t think this is necessary as long as the linked content/website is of good quality)
- No more than X number of contributor quotes (if the writer uses a tool like HARO to gather quotes it’s best to put a cap on the number you’re willing to allow. Also check that the quotes actually bring value to the piece)
#6 Calls to action
Another good use of editorial guidelines is pointing out how the writer should use calls to action. Include examples of the types of call to action used on your blog.
Each blog post should have a specific goal and therefore an accompanying call to action. If not, you need to go back to the drawing board and rethink your blogging strategy.
#7 Image usage
Images are where things can get real messy and take up a ton of time so it’s best to align your writers on some basic house rules. For example:
- Recommended image size and width
- Instructions for image compression (if you’re not already using a WordPress plugin for this purpose)
- Provide a separate .zip folder with all the images from the article
- Link to image sources
- Images should back up/illustrate arguments – avoid meaningless stock images
- Optimize image file names e.g. email-marketing-example.png
Observe & Adapt: Update Your Editorial Style Guide as You Go
Think of editorial guidelines as a tool to help you save time and work smarter.
Once you start editing work from different writers, you’ll quickly notice patterns. Watch out for the recurring edits and fixes that continuously take your time.
These are the types of things to include in the editorial guidelines to make the editing process and working with freelance writers more efficient.
Thinking about hiring your first freelance content writer? Check out our guide to blog writer costs.