Elements of Editorial Style for the Web

Swiss Army knife

An editorial style guide is a tool. Make it useful.

Last week, while sitting at Starbucks, I overheard a guy tell his friend, "Making websites is so easy these days. You just buy a template and move text around."

I joked with Georgy about asking the guy to do a Meet Content guest post on "Cut-and-Paste Content Strategy."

Although most people don’t describe the process as being that easy, many do have an oversimplified understanding of what is involved in creating effective web content. The web has certainly made it easier to publish content, but the process of content creation is just as challenging as it has always been — perhaps even more so.

When creating web content, you need to consider your brand, communication goals, word usage, links, SEO, metadata, usability, social media — even accessibility, semantic markup and page layout. Oh well, so much for cut-and-paste content strategy.

An editorial style guide for the web helps content contributors create useful, usable, findable, on-brand content at your institution — it’s much more than a list of preferred spellings and grammar usage. You can’t expect dozens — or hundreds or thousands — of content creators at your institution to publish effective content without instruction and guidelines for making content work.

As Kristina Halvorson says in Content Strategy for the Web, "It’s essential to ensure that the people who are creating, reviewing, and approving your content are all referring to the same playbook" (p. 87).

When creating an editorial style guide for the web, consider all the elements needed to make it useful and user friendly. Here are some to get you thinking.

1. Messaging and communication

Content contributors need a guide to measure whether content is on-brand and in support of communication goals. A message architecture — a prioritized list of brand attributes — as well as clearly defined communication goals, act as a benchmark to determine whether content, including voice and tone, is appropriate or relevant.

For example, are you traditional or innovative, practical or theoretical? Whatever you are, does your content reflect your institution’s brand and core values? Does it communicate this clearly?

2. Voice and tone

Clear communication is not just about what we say, but how we say it.

Clear communication is not just about what we say, but how we say it.

Online, your voice, or personality, helps your audience relate to you. Your tone is the attitude expressed by your voice. Ultimately, voice and tone — not figures, stats, or promises — are what distinguish your brand from other institutions. As such, in order to build trust and credibility, it’s important that voice and tone appear consistent on your websites and other communication channels.

To help content contributors use voice and tone appropriately, identify voice qualities that relate to your message architecture. Use brand attributes as examples to illustrate how they guide the way you communicate and support the personality you want to portray.

For example, if one of your brand attributes is "welcoming," then your site might use language that’s friendly and inviting, knowledgeable but not overly academic.

3. Style and usage

Style and word usage are what most people think of in regard to editorial style. It includes guidelines such as preferred spellings, abbreviations and acronyms and preferred rules for capitalization, grammar and punctuation.

For example, do you prefer advisor or adviser? Will you use periods with the abbreviations of degree names (e.g., BA or B.A.)? Should a grammatically complete sentence following a colon start with a capital or lowercase letter?

You should also designate a global reference, such as The Chicago Manual of Style or The Associated Press Stylebook, to address style questions not covered in your guide.

4. Web writing

In order for an editorial style guide to be useful, it needs to provide instruction on how to use it for web writing. Include a section on web writing guidelines for content contributors to educate on best practices, such as writing concise sentences, keeping paragraphs short, and incorporating headers and bulleted lists to make text scannable.

A section on how to write for the web is valuable for novice web writers as well as experts who benefit from friendly reminders.

5. Inline links

Links are the most important interactive element on your website, yet many content contributors give them little thought in regard to quality content.

For example, a non-descriptive link such as "click here" is not nearly as helpful to users as a descriptive link that indicates where the link goes. ("Read our tuition refund policy," not "Click here to read our tuition refund policy.")

Include editorial style guidelines for inline links to ensure content contributors consistently make links useful, usable, relevant, findable and accessible across your website.

6. SEO and findability

Search engine optimization (SEO) is a critical consideration for web publishing. Search is the primary method of discovering content online. If your content isn’t optimized for search, including using relevant keywords, search engines and web users won’t easily find it and its value and usefulness will be diminished.

Including a section on SEO best practices in your style guide helps content contributors at your institution incorporate them into their content development process.

7. Metadata

Many people associate metadata with the "annoying details" of web content development. As such, it’s often overlooked. And that’s a problem.

Metadata is not the most exciting element of web content. In fact, many people associate metadata with the "annoying details" of web content development. As such, it’s often overlooked. And that’s a problem.

Metadata is important for SEO and usability. I recently wrote about the entry points to your website — the first content people see before they ever get to your website. Webpage metadata is often what makes this introductory content possible. Indeed, these "annoying details" can be the deciding factor for someone thinking about whether or not to visit your site.

8. Social media

In order for your institution’s social media sites to support your brand and communication goals, they too require editorial guidelines. This includes guidance on voice and tone, structure, titles, links, abbreviations and citations.

The way we communicate should cater to the content delivery channel.

Editorial style must consider the publishing platform. Although brand messaging should remain consistent, the way we communicate should cater to the content delivery channel. The tone used to describe academic policies is not appropriate for Twitter.

In addition to enhancing communication and ensuring consistency across social media channels, editorial guidelines also help new social media users to feel confident in their use of various platforms.

9. Visual communication

While an editorial style guide is not a visual style guide, it’s relevant to address graphic elements as they pertain to communication, including when and how to use graphics for structure, emphasis and clarity. Such elements include captions, pull quotes, block quotes, calls to action, italic and bold styles — as well as diagrams, illustrations and infographics.

10. Other considerations

Depending on how your editorial style guide is organized and used, consider broadening the scope to relate its guidelines to other web publishing elements, including accessibility and page layout.

Make Your Style Guide Useful

An editorial style guide is a tool. Make it useful.

Last fall, during a talk at Content Strategy New England titled "A Pragmatic Approach to Editorial Style," Mandy Brown and Erin Kissane highlighted the need for style guides to be user friendly.

Remember, an editorial style guide is a tool. Make it useful.

Your style guide needs to be flexible and cater to those who use it. It should support the culture and editorial process in your organization, as well as adapt to growing needs and shifting priorities.

Mandy and Erin recommend that style guides:

For more on this presentation, check out Georgy’s recap: Mandy Brown and Erin Kissane at Content Strategy New England: ‘A Pragmatic Approach to Editorial Style.’

Higher Ed Editorial Style Guide Examples

On Meet Content we’ll explore these different elements of editorial style in upcoming posts. In the meantime, how do you support editorial style guidelines at your institution? Do you have any good examples you can share?

Photo by Quality & Style / Flickr Creative Commons

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About Rick Allen

Rick Allen has worked in higher education for over twelve years, helping to shape web communications and content strategy. As principal of ePublish Media, Inc, a web publishing and content strategy consultancy in Boston, Mass., Rick works with knowledge-centric organizations to create and sustain effective web content. Keep going »


  1. Nice post, Rick. You said it with style! :) Thank you for advocating for the style guide. Admittedly, it isn’t the sexiest tool in the toolbox, but it is such an important one.

    • Thanks, Charna! You’re one of the first people I think of regarding editorial style (and you just reminded me to add a couple higher ed examples to the list above).

      The topic may not be sexy, but the results sure are. :-)

  2. Thanks for this post, Rick. It’s one thing to be able to successfully write the content for our university’s websites before the initial launch, but the struggle comes when we leave the editing in the hands of the individual departments or schools. Our team is putting together a web content strategy/style guide that we’ll be including in our CMS training sessions, and these pointers are a great road map.

  3. Thank you for sharing this! Just what I needed!

What do you think?