The Utility of Style Guides

By Craig Dodman

What is a Style Guide?

Style guides are a widely used reference document that contains rules and recommendations for writing content. Style guides will feature specifications for

  • the formatting of titles, lists, and tables,
  • the language or version of English should be used,
  • the unit of measurements used,
  • legal requirements,
  • the phraseology for any notices of warning, caution, or danger,
  • the templates for different types of information blocks, and
  • the application of fonts, highlights, bold, and italics.

There is a wide range of other topics encompassed by style guides, but some things should be omitted. Jean Hollis Weber’s article on Tech Whirl, Developing a Departmental Style Guide is extensively detailed and gives a robust list of items that should (and should not) be detailed in a style guide.

Style guides are used effectively by many companies. Some great examples such as Microsoft and Apple style guides are widely known for their standards and publishing aesthetic. The following article intends to detail the benefits of using a style guide, some of the possible routes a document department can pursue to incorporate style guides within their practice, the nuances of developing effective style guides, and some final thoughts on why style guides are invaluable to technical writers in the context of Content 4.0.

Benefits of Using Style Guides

Style guides serve an important role in a documentation department. The ability to reference a centralized document allows technical writers to streamline their workflow and rely less on individual judgment calls. Without having standards, each document has a higher likelihood of having inconsistencies, errors, or divergences in tone. These inconsistencies can make texts harder to read and navigate.

Adopting a style guide allows a document department to

  • ensure all experiences with the text are congruent,
  • create a body of documentation that has a consensus on terminology,
  • condition readers to expect certain formatting patterns,
  • reduce individual decision making for writers, and
  • greatly reduce disputes between writers and editors.

It requires some time and labour to incorporate style guides in the workplace, however, the value of that labour pays dividends over time.

Developing Style Guides

One of the best aspects of style guides is that they are infinitely adaptable. Regardless of the demands of your specific field, a style guide can be tailored to unify the voices of everyone writing for the company. A documentation department can do the following:

  • use an existing style guide,
  • adapt an existing style guide to meet their needs, or
  • create a new style guide.

Creating a style guide can be a laborious process but can pay dividends in better quality management and lowered production time. Controlling the use of specific terminology can be of incredible importance for some businesses. The Microsoft Manual of Style is a great example of a guide that places great emphasis on the usage of terms. When writers are consistent in the usage of their terms under the guidance of a style guide, they increase the reader’s ability to navigate, comprehend, and utilize the information in the document.

The repercussions or the intended user responses are what determine the severity of the guide’s recommendations, and the writing style should reflect that severity. A guide that articulates best practices for customer service does not carry the same consequence as safety protocol that could result in bodily harm. For example, the recommendations differ for writing notes of best practice and for writing a warning. The Precision Content Standards Guide are as follows:

Best practiceTo satisfy a client over the long term, be consistent and communicate regularly.
WarningDo not smoke within 10 meters of the door.
Precision Content Standards Guide, 22

The imperative sentence structure for the warning makes the required action unambiguous and immediately recognizable. When style guides are used reliably throughout a document department, a user who becomes familiar with the conventions will naturally be able to scan for particular forms of information.

Making Style Guides Effective

Developing effective style guides can offer challenges to any documentation department. Between navigating the multiple writing philosophies and creating a unique voice for your brand, spearheading this kind of project can be rather difficult. Here are some useful suggestions when you are developing style guides for your writing department.

Style Guides are Not Absolute

Rules may need to be broken during unusual circumstances. The guide should be considered the default formation for any writing in the department, however, exceptions should be made with reasonable justification. Codifying when exceptions are to be made will further improve the style guide, although anticipating these exceptions may be difficult or sometimes impossible.

Overly Controlling Style Guides are Less Usable

A style guide should formulate the important terms and subjects to reduce ambiguity or misunderstanding. Overly developed style guides meet a point of diminishing return, as an overabundance of rules makes the guide less usable for the writer and offers less noticeable benefits to the document. A style guide should not encroach on the writer’s ability to craft a document suitable to the needs of the user and the topic.

Focus on Style

Avoid creating rules for non-style-related things, such as the use of graphical elements, choice of software, and procedures related to reviewing, publishing, or archiving the document. The style guide should be focused solely on the written style of the document. Let those who are responsible for graphic or publishing decisions make those decisions.

Style Guides and the Future of Technical Writing

Style guides are valuable to technical writers now and will be even more so in the future. The concept of Content 4.0 offers insight into what makes contemporary technical writing different from technical writing in the past. Writers and theorists have described the content industry as having gone through cycles of development in relation to other fields such as industry, the web, and information.

An insightful article on Content 4.0 can be found on Joe Gollner’s blog, The Content Philosopher. The article details what differentiates Content 4.0 from past iterations and covers the development of several other industries to give reference to the development of Content 4.0.

The following features can distinguish Content 4.0 from past modes of production:

  • content delivery is automated,
  • content is being broken down into smaller molecules, and
  • content is ideally created for reuse.

Since Content 4.0 requires the text to be reusable, the text itself must be flexible to be used in any visual representation. Style guides can aim to standardize the language itself so that it can work with any visual presentation or page layout. This makes style guides a great companion to writers creating within Content 4.0’s framework.

Style guides are an effective companion to Content 4.0 because they can be used to

  • regulate the written language without affecting visual output,
  • simplify complex language,
  • produce content readable and translatable for machines, and
  • guarantee a singular voice is present through a large number of content molecules.

Style guides standardize the language that the writer is using, while not impacting the visual elements or publishing output. Rather than relying on past examples or the writer’s judgment, the style guide codifies these decisions in text. Style guides can be taken from established sources such as the Chicago Manual of Style or can be radically customized to fit the niche of your particular field. Style guides serve a vital role to optimize production within documentation departments and will continue to do so throughout the era of Content 4.0.

About the author

Craig Dodman is a technical writer and App developer. He is an active content contributor and editor for the STC Toronto Chapter blog. You can connect with Craig on his LinkedIn page:

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