Why You Need a Style Guide for Your Blog
Every major newspaper and magazine has a style guide or style sheet, as do many websites with multiple contributors. You need one too, especially if your blog has multiple authors.
A style guide creates and maintains consistency of presentation. Inconsistencies and irregularities stand out and call our attention away from what’s important — the article itself. And if your reader is anything like me, he or she will spot everything from the mixed use of H3 and H4 subheadings to getting different results after clicking on a link or image (such as opening in a new window or not).
But what if you’re the only author on your blog — do you still need a style guide? Yes. Even if you just scribble some style notes on a piece of paper, the point is to make conscious decisions about how you’re going to handle grammar, punctuation, and style moving forward. That way, you won’t have to refer back to a previous post to remind yourself which header tag to use or how to style a list.
The origin of style guides
Oxford University Press created their first style guide in 1893, with the University of Chicago Press following in 1906. After many revisions and updates, both guides are widely used today and available under the titles of New Hart’s Rules: The Oxford Style Guide (Hart’s) and The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS).
Let’s take a look at the contents of each style guide.
New Hart’s Rules: The Oxford Style Guide
- The parts of a book
- Preparing copy
- Spelling and hyphenation
- Italic, roman, and other type treatments
- Work titles in text
- Quotations and direct speech
- Abbreviations and symbols
- Numbers and dates
- Law and legal references
- Science, mathematics, and computing
- Lists and tables
- Notes and references
- Copyright and other publishing responsibilities
- US and UK English
The Chicago Manual of Style
Part One: The Publishing Process
- Books and Journals
- Manuscript Preparation, Manuscript Editing, and Proofreading
- Illustrations and Tables
- Rights, Permissions, and Copyright Administration
Part Two: Style and Usage
- Grammar and Usage
- Spelling, Distinctive Treatment of Words, and Compounds
- Names and Terms
- Foreign Languages
- Mathematics in Type
- Quotations and Dialogue
Part Three: Documentation
- Documentation I: Notes and Bibliography
- Documentation II: Author-Date References
As we can see, New Hart’s Rules and The Chicago Manual of Style cover every conceivable style decision a publishing house makes — much more than you’re ever going to need for your blog. Reading their contents, we can see already that the guides employ different styles. In addition to using section headings, CMOS uses title case for each chapter, whereas Hart’s employs sentence case. However, both use the serial comma.
How to structure your style guide
It’s a good idea to break down your style guide into sections and categories. We have two broad categories in our style guide: writing guidelines and image guidelines. Our writing guidelines include grammar, punctuation, and capitalization; formatting; style; and Yoast SEO. Our image guidelines include sources; image sizes; and images in WordPress.
You’re welcome to read the #CreativeTribes Style Guide and use it as a basis for creating your own.
This covers everything from spelling and capitalization to formatting.
One of your first considerations should be whether to use American or British English as it will affect other decisions, such as date formats. On the #CreativeTribes blog, we decided to use American English, as it’s more universally used than British English. This is something I have to check carefully since I’ve spent my whole life writing in British English. I use the Chrome Grammarly extension, set to American English, to highlight any instances of British rather than American English as, otherwise, my browser will ignore all British English words.
When it comes to titles, do you use sentence or title case? Sentence case is simpler as you only need to capitalize the first word and any proper nouns. Title case requires you to capitalize all words, including the last, except for articles, coordinating conjunctions, and prepositions: “How I Learned to Ride a Bike — Sort Of”.
If you’d like to use title case but aren’t sure how to handle certain words, read this Grammar Monster article on title case. Alternatively, to check a specific title here’s a simple online title capitalization tool.
Beyond spelling and capitalization considerations you’ll need to think about how you’re going to handle everything from commas and apostrophes to bold and italics. This is why reading current online style guides is a great starting point, helping you to hone in on those aspects that are most important for your particular blog.
How you handle subheadings in online articles isn’t only about style but also SEO. Getting this right can improve your SEO. Getting it wrong can negatively impact it. In addition to your site looking more professional and being easier to read/scan, using header tags for subheadings is good for your SEO, especially when the subheadings include keywords. Search engine spiders pay attention to the text in header tags, checking it for relevancy against the text on other parts of the page. Plus, search engines favor user-friendly sites, another reason they register header tags. For starters, here’s an article from Yoast about the heading structure for your blog.
Just as with subheadings, images aren’t just about style and can positively or negatively impact SEO, depending on the image metadata, image size (dimensions in pixels) and file size (KB or MB). It’s important to understand image SEO and to include the information in your style guide so authors can properly prepare images before uploading them, as well as correctly add metadata after uploading.
The purpose of image metadata is to help search engines know what your image is about so it can be included in relevant search results. The purpose of using image dimensions no larger than those displayed, as well as compressing the image file size, will help to reduce the page load time. This is a win-win scenario as your readers are less likely to bounce and search engines prefer faster loading web pages.
Scale and compress images
Before dealing with image metadata, the first step is to scale (resize) and compress your image. If your blog width is 800 px, ensure the image width is exactly 800 px. After that’s done, you need to compress your image. You can do this prior to uploading by using the excellent ShortPixel online image compression tool.
If your website has an image compression plugin installed, such as ShortPixel Image Optimizer or Smush Image Compression and Optimization, you can skip the pre-upload compression and let the plugin do the work as part of the upload process. Both image compression plugins offer free and paid-for versions.
ShortPixel offers 100 free images per month. However, most blogs will reach the 100-image limit very quickly since every image uploaded will automatically generate a number of thumbnails. How many thumbnails depends on your theme settings. With a ShortPixel plan, you can opt for either a monthly plan with credits that expire at the end of each monthly cycle or a one-time plan with credits that can be used anytime.
The free version of Smush Image Compression and Optimization does everything the pro version does, but if you’d like “Super Smush lossy compression, the ability to optimize images up to 32MB, and bulk smush optimization for all your images in just one click” you’ll need to get WP Smush Pro which is included in the WPMU DEV Membership. This currently costs $49/month and gives you access to 100+ premium plugins, themes, and much more.
Image metadata is the detail that’s easy to miss, especially if you’re not clear about the place metadata plays in SEO. Image metadata begins with naming the file. As explained in our style guide:
You’re writing about croissants and have a photograph of a croissant with a cup of coffee. The keyword (main subject of the photograph) here is coffee. Be sure to use the keyword in the filename, the Alt Text field, and the Image Title Attribute field.
- Keep it simple and use the keyword at the beginning of the filename. Make sure you do this BEFORE uploading to WordPress:
- croissant-coffee.jpg NOT breakfast-coffee-croissant.jpg or DSC_123456.jpg
- Complete the Alt Text field and Image Title Attribute field, using a complete sentence, making it as long as necessary to include all relevant information:
- Croissant and coffee for breakfast.
- Note: Use sentence case for Alt Text and Image Title Attribute fields.
- You can edit both these fields by clicking on the image when in the WordPress write post window. This will bring up a mini menu. Click on the pencil to bring up the Image Details box, and then on Advanced Options for the Image Title Attribute field.
No matter how much you follow best practices for scale, file size, and metadata, it’s important to ensure you and your writers are using only those images that you have the right to use. Fortunately, as an alternative to expensive stock photo sites, more and more sites offer images that are in the public domain and licensed under the Creative Commons Zero license (CC0), which means you have the right to use the images however and wherever you want, including remixing and commercial use. Read “12 Best Free Image Sources for Your Blog” to get an overview of the top 12 sites that offer public domain images. The article also includes a listing of 21 additional free image sources worth exploring.
Online style guides
Style guides evolve over time
Like language itself, style guides are not static but evolve over time. Consider using an online collaborative platform for your style guide, iterating and updating when necessary.
Photo of The Telegraph Style Guide by Dave Crosby