How to Make the Most of a Style Guide

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dictionaryWhat is a style guide?

A style guide is a reference for writers. Think of it as a dictionary of sorts, but one that documents decisions rather than definitions. Style guides essentially serve as a roadmap to consistency. Let’s face it: writers have options, and most writers follow their own preferences where they can. But, when you have many writers working on the same or related documents, or you wish for consistency among documents, you need all writers to write according to a single preference. That’s where a style guide comes in handy. Style guides document choices—where and when to use commas, how to spell and capitalize key terms, what colors to use in which situations, etc. Style guides can be highly useful, and to an inexperienced writer, they can be essential. Below you’ll find a few tips for creating and using style guides. 

Why should I create a style guide?

That’s simple. You want to create a style guide so that each document you publish is the best it can be.

If you have a writer or team of writers who aren’t trained technical writers, a style guide can be especially useful. However, in that scenario, your style guide will have to be comprehensive and include grammar, mechanics, spelling, design, style, etc. By requiring inexperienced technical writers to use style guides, you ensure that your documents are consistent, and you reduce the errors that might otherwise occur in your published works.

How do you create a style guide?

Style guides can take many forms. They can be lists (if you’re only using them to document such things as spelling), or they can be web pages with fully functioning navigation (if you’re documenting everything from design choices to grammatical conventions for a large corporation).

The first thing you have to do is determine the purpose of your style guide. Keep in mind that the purpose of any style guide is to generate consistency, so define first what must be consistent within and among your documents. If your priority is the way a document looks, then start documenting elements of design, such as colors, typefaces and sizes, and margins. If jargon—technical terminology—is most important, then begin by documenting how you will use these terms (spelling, acronyms, etc.) in your text.

Whatever your priority, you should include everything that you want your writers to know when they create your documents. So, you’ll probably want to divide it into sections so that your writers can easily consult specific topics as needed. And, as writers’ questions arise, add the answers to your guide so others won’t stumble on the same topics. As your writers become more proficient, they’ll refer to the guide with less frequency, but even the strongest, most experienced writers consult them from time to time.

The more detailed and specific your style guide is, the more useful it will be for the writers who use it.

How do writers use a style guide?

Technical writers use style guides as they would any other writing reference tool. Style guides are not simply grammar guides. While they may include extensive information about grammar and usage, they are subjective; they don’t present rules but preferences. These preferences are either document-specific or organization-specific.

Writers use style guides in two ways. They use the guides at the beginning of the writing process to shape the format of the document. They’ll refer to the preferences for color, typeface, margins, etc. Once their documents take shape, writers may refer to the style guide to answer questions about grammar, mechanics, and usage—specifically usage relating to organizational terms, spellings, capitalization, etc.

Style guides can boost the confidence of inexperienced writers. By referring to the expert advice provided in a style guide, a writer can feel more certain of getting it right before subjecting a document to review and revision. Over time, style guides can teach your writers what you want them to know about conventional writing at your organization.