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Style Guide Pep Talk: Rah! Rah! Rah!

by Angie Halama on April 5th, 2012

Finally! I just published the latest updates to the internal Brain Traffic editorial style guide—and it took nearly five whole months. Gasp! I’m a content professional! You’d think maintaining a set of guidelines about stuff like grammar and word choice would be at the top of the fun list for a word nerd like me.

But, it’s not.

Like most people responsible for a style guide, I find making updates seems to be a task always languishing at the bottom of my to-do list. After all, updates are rarely urgent. And collecting all those changes, deciding which ones to make … it all seems so exhausting.

Still, a useful style guide is an updated style guide. And, organizations need useful style guides. So, here, especially for you (and a little bit for me), is a pep talk about keeping your style guide in tip-top shape.

Got spirit?

See what can happen when you don’t use a style guide?

(Image courtesy of Above the Law)

Why style guides are awesome

An editorial style guide provides standards for written content, typically on items such as grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Before we begin, we must first acknowledge the power of a good style guide:

  • It’s key to editorial consistency across your organization’s content (along with a good editor, copyeditor, and/or proofreader who enforces it).
  • It saves you from deciding style items on the fly. So when conversations flare-up over whether “email” should have a hyphen, you can simply respond, “Our style guide says no hyphen.” End of discussion. (Or, suggest dissenters submit a proposed change for the next style guide update—more on that later.)
  • It’s essential in helping new writers and content creators get familiar with your organization’s writing style. For the same reason, freelancers and contractors will adore you—we’re talking putting your picture up in their locker—for having an updated style guide.

What to put in your style guide

The first step to defining your internal, or “house,” style guide, is to choose your preferred external style source. This is going to answer the bulk of your users’ style questions. Old favorites are The Associated Press Stylebook and The Chicago Manual of Style. However, we use the incredible and amazing Yahoo! Style Guide. It’s specifically written for digital communications and includes great info like writing clear user-interface text and coding basics.

With your external style guide defined, your house style guide only needs to cover:

  • Style preferences that differ from the external style guide
    • Example: “Internet” has an initial cap per the Yahoo! Style Guide, but our house style uses “internet.”
  • Style items or topics that aren’t covered in the external style guide
    • Example: The Yahoo! Style Guide doesn’t include a preferred spelling for “wireframes,” so we’ve defined it as one word.
  • Items that people ask about frequently or often get tripped up by (meaning, it’s a frequent question or issue for more than just one person)
    • Example: We just added an entry on when to hyphenate a compound modifier.
    • Note: You don’t need to fully define these rules if they're explained well elsewhere. Our guide has some brief rules on hyphenating compound modifiers and then a link to an external site with more in-depth guidelines.

Consider adding these “guiding criteria” to your style guide so everyone understands what’s included in the guide. These criteria are essential to helping you evaluate proposed changes and updates.

You’ll also want to define clear sections of the style guide for different types of information. Common divisions include:

  • Grammar
  • Punctuation
  • Terms (preferred spellings and usages)
  • Numbers
  • Capitalization

Other topics you could include:

  • Trademarks, and when to use them
  • Tone and voice guidelines
  • Web-specific items (for example, how to indicate a required field on a form)

To keep your style guide as simple as possible (both for users to use and you to update), only include topics or sections that your users really need. Think “need to have,” not “nice to have.”

Define the updating process

Here’s the first rule of updating your style guide: Do it as little as possible. Yep, I’m serious. It can be a lot of work. Besides, frequent updates can be hard for users to keep up with. At Brain Traffic, we aim for once a year.

Next, you need a style guide committee who will decide on changes and updates. Everyone on our style guide committee loves words, writing, and appreciates a good style rule—which makes them perfect. That said, keep your committee small, maybe five people at the most. Because wrangling lots of opinions about lots of changes is, well, an awful lot.

It’s also important to create an easy process for users to submit proposed changes. Our style guide is a wiki, so users can post their comments/questions/challenges in the document. At the start of an update cycle, I put these in a spreadsheet along with any other changes I’ve been collecting. Whatever your method, make sure your users know how to submit a proposed change—this can go directly in your style guide, too.

After you’ve collected these changes, get the committee together to decide what changes to make. There will be lots of opinions, and even lively discussions. But remember this:

  • Use your “guiding criteria” to evaluate every proposed change.
  • Consider the impact of the change. If you add a hyphen to “email,” how often does it already show up in your content hyphen-less? How much work will it be to change this across your organization and your communication channels—and is it worth it?

Announce the style guide changes to your users after you’ve updated the guide. This is essential. How will they know “e-mail” now has a hyphen if you don’t tell them?

The Keeper of the Style Guide

To keep the process running smoothly, you need one lucky soul to be the Keeper of the Style Guide. This person is in charge of everything:

  • Getting the update cycle started
  • Collecting the changes and getting the committee to discuss and decide on them
  • Making the actual changes to the style guide—or making sure the changes are made
  • Communicating the changes to all of your style guide users

Remember, the Keeper of the Style Guide gets to wield the Power of Style over a multitude of users. Exciting, yes? So: Go! Fight! Win! Let the style-guide updating begin!

  • http://daveswhiteboard.com/ Dave Ferguson

    A less-obvious benefit to having a style guide: even if your employees, freelancers, or contractors don’t actually love you for yours, they’re able to come to terms more quickly with something intentional. 

    In other words, I don’t have to discover on my own that Patty uses e-mail while Ron uses email.  And if I prefer to include the hyphen, but the style guide doesn’t, I might grumble, but as long as the thing isn’t ridden with arbitrary or fatheaded decisions, I’ll comply all the sooner.

    (I say “fatheaded” because of one style guide I’ve had to work with that insisted contractions are harder for people whose native language isn’t English–and so no contractions allowed, including in user-oriented training material.  Apparently none of these English-as-a-second-language people ever spoke to native speakers, read newspapers, or watched movies where English was used.)

  • http://twitter.com/KatyMcDevitt PublishEd Adelaide

     Angie, this is great stuff and has really got me thinking. How do you handle those in-house arguments about editorial style that seem to come up every time a style guide is revised – e.g. list comma, bullet lists? You know the kind of conversation I expect!

    Is the Style Guide the place for editors to lay down the law on how elements of style, grammar, language are to be used – or do you see it as a more collaborative/open process of development taking in views of internal authors? I’d love to hear what you think.

  • http://sheenadangers.com/ Sheena Rajan

    Great advice! I’ve also heard of this as a CAT doc. Or Content Architecture Template; that in addition to grammer and tone also address messaging and call-to-actions.

  • http://relojesblog.net/tag/relojes-panerai-precios relojes

    Many things will turn out to be bad without style guide. We want everything works well and that’s the reason why we need style guide. Thanks for sharing this great post.

  • Angie Halama

    It’s great to be in an environment where people have
    opinions on style, because that means they really care about it. I like an
    updating process that allows people to share and submit those ideas, which  can help a style guide committee make informed
    decisions. However, discussions and opinions could go on forever—and that’s why
    you need to establish the authority of the committee for making final


    Yes, some people are going to disagree with the
    style guide rules. That’s just life. But the style guide helps an organization establish
    a consistent and unified voice—meaning one voice. So even if you have 60
    different writers creating content, that shouldn’t be apparent to your audience.
    And that’s the mark of great style, and a pretty awesome achievement that
    everyone in your organization should be very proud of. 

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