All About Editorial Guidelines: Q&A with Marlene Oliveira

To help us understand how editorial guidelines can help build relationships with guest storytellers, Marlene Oliveira of Nonprofit MarCommunity answered some of our burning questions.

When and why did you first create editorial guidelines for your blog?

I created the Nonprofit MarCommunity editorial guidelines before the blog went live, in April 2013. This was my first time running a multi-author blog and I heavily researched ways to do it right and keep it manageable: editorial guidelines emerged as a must-have. I also looked at big, successful multi-author blogs that I respected like Content Marketing Institute, Marketing Profs, and Social Media Examiner; they all had strong editorial or submission guidelines in place.

Based on my research, I knew that I needed editorial guidelines that outline the blog’s purpose and plan. I knew it was important to have them documented and easily accessible so I could:

  • Share them when approaching potential contributors. The guidelines summarize everything I’m looking for in a blog post, and why.
  • Send them to potential authors who approach me to guest blog. The guidelines help ensure the right fit before we start making specific plans.
  • Provide them as a reference and guide for bloggers during writing and as they neared completion of draft copy.

And there’s an additional benefit: The editorial guidelines also show my commitment to quality, relevant and consistent content—which attracts quality contributors!

How have your editorial guidelines changed over time?

For the most part, the original guidelines are intact and I have made small additions and adjustments over time. Here are two examples:

  • In addition to what we cover on the blog, I’ve added information about what we don’t cover. Specifically, I was getting too many fundraising-related pitches and it’s neither a focus of the blog, nor my particular expertise (important to acknowledge since I’m the managing editor). So, I added a note in the guidelines to say that we don’t cover fundraising topics—preferring to leave that to the fundraising experts.
  • Over time, I’ve also added a number of links to more details on some of the points in the guidelines. For example, because our focus is on how-to content, I’ve added links to articles that guide authors through writing for the how-to format.

How often do you modify or refresh your guidelines?

The short answer: as needed.

Over the years of running the blog, I’ve paid attention to revisions or suggestions I find myself making repeatedly, and for multiple authors. Repeating myself in this way is a sign that I need to add more detail to the guidelines in a particular area.

This also applies to vetting post ideas. I mentioned earlier that I’ve added in a note indicating we don’t feature fundraising topics. I used to get many pitches for fundraising posts, and now I rarely get them.

And then, sometimes our authors alert me to something that is out of date! For example, I initially asked contributors to include a thematic feature image, which I noted in the guidelines. Over time, for consistency, I decided to take care of those myself. Just this week, I received a question that made me realize I needed to remove that request from the guidelines.

What do you think your world/blog would look like without these in place?

My world would be much less efficient! I always urge nonprofit communicators who are planning to start a blog to establish and publish guidelines as soon as possible. I believe it’s truly an essential step.

Without the guidelines, I would have to communicate and repeat and explain so many points on a weekly, or even daily, basis.

The guidelines save me time when talking to potential bloggers about their ideas—if the alignment is a little off, I resend the guidelines and ask them to consider an angle that fits. I send the guidelines to people with an interest but without a specific idea; the guidelines will help them to understand whether they have content/ideas that fit and can sometimes inspire new ideas. I send the link to new bloggers to help them shape their content for our publication and to use as a checklist once the draft is coming together.

Running the blog is something I do as a side project of my business, so the time the guidelines save is essential!

How much direction is too much? Where do you draw the line?

If you can get as specific as possible when pulling together editorial guidelines, I think that it’s a good idea.

I think that the majority of bloggers appreciate specific guidance. Remember, blogging might seem like an old format now, but even many experienced writers have never written for a blog. I just received a pitch this week from a communications pro with 20 years in the business who has never blogged before.

On the other hand, you don’t want to be so heavy-handed with direction that you scare people away (either from contributing or even just from reading your long guidelines). I recently wrote about managing the blog review and revision process and some of the same points, such as leaving room for individual voices and styles to shine through, apply when crafting your guidelines.

What is the purpose of asking others to write for your blog? Isn’t it more work than it’s worth?

Yes, it’s work. A lot of work! But yes, it’s worth it!

I’ve found that for many nonprofits (and of course, there are exceptions), a multi-author blog makes more sense than a blog written from a personal or corporate point of view. Nonprofits are rich with potential contributors who can share information, insights, and experiences in a way that will be much more appealing than posts written strictly from a single “corporate voice.”

Managing a multi-author blog is certainly work; you need to understand that from the beginning and plan accordingly. However, as you build up your community of contributors, put systems and tools in place (like editorial guidelines), and figure out efficiencies, you’ll find that the work is much lighter than it would be if you took on all of the writing yourself.

On a slightly different topic, it might sound self-serving, but you’ve also got to keep the reach of your blog in mind. Every guest blogger has the potential to bring your blog to new audiences—a potential benefit in that can’t be ignored.

What questions should an organization ask themselves when creating submission guidelines?

You should be asking:

  • Who is this blog for?
  • What do we want the blog to achieve?
  • What contributors do we want to attract?
  • What types of content do we feature?
  • What’s our blogging style?

Before you have guidelines, you need a clear blogging plan that defines your blog’s purpose, goals, audience and content. All of these should be stated in your guidelines, along with practical information about what you want to see in each individual post. I have an article that offers a detailed step-by-step process for creating blog editorial guidelines that should help.

Marlene Oliveira
Copywriter & Communications Consultant
Marlene Oliveira is a copywriter and communications consultant at moflow and founder of the Nonprofit MarCommunity. She specializes in helping nonprofits to produce better content and has worked in the sector since 1999. Marlene’s approach is to work with clients and community members, tapping into the knowledge and wisdom they already possess to help their communications "flow."