Create a Style Guide for Your Blog

Filed as Features, Guides on March 10, 2008 9:23 am

Consistency is critical for success in blogging. Though trying new things is important, if a blog finds itself drifting in voice, style and quality, it can lose readers and reputation seemingly overnight.

But maintaining consistency is almost impossible over the long haul, especially for blogs with multiple authors. As humans, it is our tendency to change and our writing styles will inevitably reflect that. Even blogs with just one author, eventually, run into the issue of their old posts looking and sounding nothing like their new.

To help keep that disjunct to a minimum and ensure consistency both between authors and over time, many blogs have begun to adopt a tool from the world of print media, style guides. These guides help lay down some fundamental rules for writing and work to create a single style for the site, without trampling on the voice of the author or authors.

Virtually any blog can benefit from a good style guide, especially those that seek to provide news or some other form of information, and best of all, creating a style guide is a very simple process. All one has to do is think about a few variables and, essentially, write down how they do things now.


Laying the Foundation

At the foundation of any good style guide is a solid set of reference materials. Simply put, before one can start to consider the specifics of how a post should look and feel, it is important to have a go-to place for basic grammar and spelling issues.

To that end, you’ll need to designate a dictionary and a grammar guide to be the rule set for the site. Though these texts will not be absolute rules and can be built upon and even changed to fit the need for your site, they provide a starting point and an easy resource to look up anything that is unclear.

For example, you may wish to designate Dictionary.com, which is powered primarily by the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, to resolve matters of spelling and definition. This way, if you or another author is unsure of the spelling or definition of a word, everyone knows to turn to that site and ensure that all uses of the word have the same spelling and meaning.

Likewise, with matters of grammar, it is important to ensure that there is both correctness and consistency among the entries in the blog. Though blog readers are typically not sticklers for correct punctuation, constantly changing the way you handle lists, possessives and other basic grammar issues creates a noticeable disconnect between posts.

To help with that, news, punditry and media blogs may want to keep a copy of the AP Style Guide handy while more artistic blogs may want to reference the MLA Style Guide just as often.

Though these guides will not cover everything that a blogger might encounter, they offer a great foundation for one to build upon when making it your own, more complete, style guide.

Making it Your Own

Unfortunately, since no style guides have or could be written to cover all Web sites, creating a guide that works for you and your blog is going to require a decent amount of building and expanding.

Though a style guide is going to be as unique as the site it is written for, most good ones will contain guidance on least most of the following elements:

  • Post Length/Frequency
  • Post Titles (length, capitalization, etc.)
  • Formatting (subheads, lists, etc.)
  • Images (sources, sizes, etc.)
  • Links (number, format, etc.)
  • Attribution (quotes, photos, etc.)
  • Author Information/Bio

However, the most important part of your guide will likely be your mission statement, where you lay out what your site is about and what all of your posts should relate to. This is critically important as it gives your blog, as well as all of its posts, a touchstone to come back to and ensure that all, or at least most, of the content on it is in the same thread.

But this is not to say that these should be hard rules. You will likely be carving out exceptions, especially for “housekeeping” or other posts that need to be off-topic. Still, these are guidelines that can help you with the vast majority of your posts and ensure that you don’t drift off your main topic over the course of your day to day posting.

Making it Work

Once you have a style guide, putting it to work for you is the next step. To that end, it is important not just to read it and understand it, but to also have it available for easy reference.

One trick is to create a format of it that fits neatly one one page and keep that near your computer at all times. Another is to create a version that is in checklist format and run through the list every time you go to post a new entry.

However, it is important to remember that a style guide is just that, a guide. It will need constant revision and upkeep to remain relevant. The goal of a good style guide is not to prevent change altogether, but to ensure that the change is planned and intentional. This ensures that the shifts in writing are for the better and always lead to an improved product.

Furthermore, a style guide is not a rule book. The guidelines can and should be broken as necessary. Even in the world of newspapers, where the AP Style Guide is often referred to as a “Bible”, the rules in the guide are occasionally broken as needs arise.

The rules in your style guide should never be viewed as set in stone or beyond reproach. They are there to help, not restrain. If you find that the guidelines are hindering your efforts in some way, then it is past time to change them.

Conclusions

To a blogger, a style guide will play a much different role than it will to a journalist or even a novelist. It is not an arcane set of rules forced on us by a publisher or editor, but a set of guidelines we put upon ourselves to ensure that what we write today fits well with all that we have written in the past.

Like everything else you do with your blog, your style guide will be a unique expression of what you want your site to be. Your rules will not and should not match mine or anyone else’s. It has to match your site in every regard or it can create a bigger disconnect than the one it seeks to prevent.

Though taking a moment to codify your style into a set of rules may seem strange or even silly, if you take a moment to re-read some of the first posts on your blog, you may see just how different it seems.

Though I think most of us will agree we prefer our current writing style to our old one, it pays to ensure that all of the changes are for the better. Writing down our rules not only makes it easier to keep a consistent voice, but gives us a reason to pause and reflect when it changes.

That analysis and reflection helps us ensure that we keep improving and not slipping into bad habits that can destroy our blog.

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  1. By Jeremy Steele posted on March 10, 2008 at 12:28 pm
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    I’ve always had a problem with sticking to some sort of guide… but recently I created a posting schedule along with a basic guide and I’ll try it out once more. Hopefully I can stick to it this time.

    Reply

  2. By Andrew G.R. posted on March 10, 2008 at 12:41 pm
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    I stick with AP style. There are plenty of media organizations that have put together great guides, so I wouldn’t sweat coming up with your own.

    I also highly recommend “The Elements of Style.” You could probably get a copy on eBay for a few cents. For anyone who struggles with WHO vs. WHOM or THEN vs. THAN, etc. – the tiny book is a huge help.

    Reply

  3. By Jonathan Bailey posted on March 10, 2008 at 11:12 pm
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    Jeremy: It isn’t easy. I come from a journalism background so the AP style guide was drilled into my head. But I agree it isn’t simple. The main thing though is to be consistent with yourself.

    Andrew: I agree completely about the AP Style. It coveres about 90% of what any blogger would need. I actually keep my copy from college (probably need to update) along with, wait for it, Elements of Style, near my keyboard at all times.

    Still, there are some things those two books don’t cover, as great as they are, and that’s where one’s own style comes in…

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  4. By Ayo Ijidakinro posted on March 11, 2008 at 9:25 am
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    Thanks, Jonathan, for this article. I have been struggling with drift on my blog. This is very helpful to understanding how I can improve the quality of my blog over the long term.

    What I’m struggling with now, is how broad of an audience to target. I’m trying to help struggling website owners to learn why their websites are failing and what they can do to improve. However, the variety of companies with websites is so broad, I’m wondering if I should focus on a specific industry instead. My fear about becoming too focused is that my potential audience is then too small.

    I’d love to see an article discussing how a blog author should go about identifying a target market and how the author can determine how narrow of a focus to make.

    You may have written articles about this already. If so, I’d love to hear about any articles I can read.

    Best,
    Ayo

    Reply

  5. By Erin posted on March 11, 2008 at 2:55 pm
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    I’m in awe of how few books have given serious thought to their electronic style guides.

    One idea I’ve considered for my own magazine is to create a web style guide using a blogging platform (in private/invite-only mode) which would include labels and RSS feeds. Users can be alerted to changes via RSS feed and can easily access categories from the labels provided.

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  6. By Sir. Polaris posted on July 19, 2009 at 11:07 pm
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    I must say this is a very good read. I knew the importance of a style guide before reading and as such have created small ones for the scopes of online communities I have ran in the past. I came here looking for insight for starting a guide and I must say the bullet points and general post has been more then helpful in giving me a starting thought.

    Thanks for the Post.

    Reply

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