Style Guide Pep Talk: Rah! Rah! Rah!

Angie Halama

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.

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!