Leo Babauta: zen habits style guide

I created this style guide a little while back to guide writers submitting guest posts to Zen Habits, and share it now in hopes that it will help other bloggers. Please note that I am not accepting guest post pitches or submissions.

I’m creating this style guide to help Zen Habits guest writers — actually to save me time in editing, because there are certain style changes that I have to do repeatedly and I’d rather avoid that if possible.

If your guest post doesn’t conform to this style guide, I may refer you to this guide and ask you to revise. It’s possible that I might not publish your guest post if you can’t get it to conform to this guide. I hope you’ll understand!

HTML Code. Too often I need to clean up the html of guest writers who write a post in MS Word and then copy and paste it into WordPress. MS Word creates horrible html — it creates custom formatting for each paragraph, which means I need to go in and strip the formatting out of each paragraph. Very time consuming. If you write in MS Word, don’t put any formatting or links into the post, and just copy the text into the HTML tab in the WordPress post editor. If you don’t know how to do this, then I suggest writing the post in a plain text editor that doesn’t have formatting, or writing it within WordPress itself. You know you’ve done it incorrectly if you look at the HTML tab in the WordPress editor and find

tags before and after each paragraph, usually with some kind of font indicated within the tag. You’ve done it right if paragraphs show up just as plain text within the HTML editor.

Introduction. Some guest writers just launch into a list of tips. I prefer a post have an introduction of perhaps 4–7 paragraphs, because the reader needs to be sold on why he needs to read the tips. Why should he care about your tips on cutting back on Internet reading? The first couple paragraphs should grab the reader, and the introduction in general should explain the problem and why the reader should be interested.

Length. I don’t have a guideline for number of words, but use my posts on ZH to guide you. Too short, and you might not be very useful (although there are exceptions). Too long and no one will read you. Make the post as long as the topic needs, no more or less.

Credits. Each post must begin and end with credits, and I’m particular about how this is done. Here’s the first credit, at the very beginning of the post:

<h6><strong>Editor's note</strong>: This is a guest post from Joe Blow
of <a href="http://joeblow.com">Joe's Guide to Blow.</h6>

You should change it to reflect your name, url and blog title, of course. The final credit comes at the end of the post:

<strong>Read more from Joe at his blog, <a href="http://joeblow.com">Joe's
Guide to Blow</a>, or <a href="http://joeblow.com/feed/">subscribe to his

Instead of your RSS feed link, you could put a link to your ebook or whatever you’d like to promote. Keep promotion to this paragraph, and don’t overdo it or I’ll cut it down.

Single space after periods. Academic papers require two spaces after periods (or other sentence-ending punctuation). Journalism style requires only one. I follow the latter.

Elipses. Space before and after, and three successive periods: “I think I’ll wait … for a second only.”

Spelling. Please spell-check and read over your text, even if I don’t follow this advice myself. WordPress has a spell-checker and will underline misspelled words.

Lists. I’m particular about list formatting, only because I like consistency. If I can’t have it in my opinions, at least my lists will be consistent. Here’s the format:

<li><strong>Work smart<strong>. Not harder.</li>
<li><strong>Be smart<strong>. You dummy.</li>
<li><strong>Live smart<strong>. Not sure what this means.</li>

Of course, you could use <ol> for a numbered list. Note that the <strong> tag encloses the title of each list item, but not the period. Then there’s a single space after the period, and the rest of the list item. There’s a period at the end of the list item. You could also do it without the <ul> or <ol> tag, and have which I do often (note that the numbers are inside of the <strong> tag):

<strong>1. Work smart<strong>. Not harder.

This is what my grandpappy taught me.

<strong>2. Be smart<strong>. You dummy.

Not that you're a dummy, of course, but your mamma is.

<strong>3. Live smart<strong>. Not sure what this means.

But it's good to have at least three list items, because what's a two-item
list anyway?

ALL CAPS. Don’t do it. Using all capital letters to emphasize words or phrases is, in effect, screaming at the reader. I prefer not to have posts on ZH scream at the reader — it’s not the tone I’m trying to establish. If you must, use italics to emphasize (the <em> tag) … but don’t do it too much (see next item). All caps should be used for acronyms only … and acronyms should be avoided as much as possible, as no one likes to read a post with a bunch of acronyms. If you use an acronym, spell it out on first reference: “I’m not sure where I stand on the tactics of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).”

Excessive bolds and italics. Don’t do it. I prefer to use bold to highlight the “subheadings” for sections within a post, or to highlight the first part of a list item (see Lists, above). I’ve used italics, but sparingly. Emphasis is best done by choice of words and sentence structure and length, not by formatting. Excessive use of bold or italics puts a strain on the reader.

Exclamation marks. Use them very, very sparingly. They should only be used to express extreme joy, excitement, anger, or the like. Not as part of regular speech. And never never use multiple exclamation marks. Or question marks combined with exclamation marks.

Footnotes. Don’t do them. They are a distracting break in the flow of reading. Instead, logically organize your thoughts within the text itself.

Tabs and spaces and tables. Don’t use tabs in your text. Don’t use a bunch of spaces to line text up exactly how you’d like. I generally avoid using html tables as well. Just write plain text and lists and avoid excessive formatting.

Images. I generally will choose the image to go with the post, but if you’d like to suggest one, that’s useful. I use Flickr creative commons photos or ones I find on istockphoto.com, so you could just include a note with the url of an image you find in either of these. Generally I prefer vertical photos because of the format of my blog, but I violate that all the time if the best photo is horizontal. Go for close-up images with a person in it, cropped fairly close (they shouldn’t be a small part of the photo, in the distance), preferably showing their face. High-quality images that look professional are a must. The person must be interesting somehow, visually.

Categories and tags. Choose one category in WordPress, not three or five. No tags please, as I don’t use them on ZH.

Excessive plugging and advertising. Posts are not published on ZH to promote you, your blog, your ebook, or your product. They’re published to help readers. You may plug your blog or ebook or other product in the credit at the end of the post (see Credits, above), but not within the post. A post with excessive plugging or that reads like an ad for something will not be published.

Linking to your own posts. Acceptable once or twice within the post, only if it’s useful to the reader, but generally to be avoided. The test is: is this link to help the reader or to promote my blog/work? Too many links and the post won’t be published.

Affiliate links. Please don’t include them. I might turn Amazon links into my own Amazon affiliate links, but otherwise don’t want any affiliate links.

Sponsored posts. I don’t allow anyone to pay me for posts or to sponsor posts. I don’t allow advertisers to post or influence my posts. If you do any of this on ZH, you’ll be blacklisted by me and I will send venomous vibes your way. If I catch it before it’s published, the post won’t be published. Readers need to trust that posts are genuine, and aren’t just ads.

Most important. Be extremely useful, and solve one of the reader’s problems. This isn’t a style point, but I had to include it because if you don’t do this, you won’t be published on ZH.

Note: I reserve the right to add to, subtract from, or otherwise revise this style guide at my slightest whim. I’m like that sometimes.

Also: I reserve the right to have typos and grammatical mistakes in this guide, if only to allow people to howl at the irony. Also because I’m not perfect.

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