Social Rules for Creating a Style Guide

Creating a style guide may initially seem like a terminology affair (“option button” or “radio button” – pick one), but the real challenge lies in persuading the department to adopt new style principles. Some writers will feel threatened by change, and respond in bizarre and unpredictable ways. Whisper campaigns and ambushes may lie in wait for you. Beware, innovative editor! Before you even think about the literary details of style, prepare to do battle with the true Goliaths and Grendyls: the department itself. By following these five rules below, you can avoid an unexpected apocalypse when you reveal the new guide.

The Five Rules

Rule #1: Don’t exclude people from decisions that affect them. This seems like common sense, but it’s almost impossible to achieve. Try getting 12 writers to reach consensus about a controversial matter of style. You might spend 45 minutes discussing whether to call something a screen or window, and still never agree.

While too many cooks in the kitchen spoils the broth, letting one or two do all the work results in half the diners complaining vociferously about the broth. You’ll have to make a tradeoff between efficiency and political appeasement. You want to let everyone have a say; however, doing so leads to chaotic and endless discussions. The trick is to make everyone feel included, even if they aren’t ultimately making the decisions.

Try these ideas:

  • Create a shared web site on your intranet to ask for feedback and initiate discussion
  • Stop by cubes and ask for opinions
  • Listen carefully and take notes
  • Clarify ambiguity when it occurs and paraphrase responses to ensure understanding

Keeping your co-workers involved means keeping your efforts alive. They’re less likely to reject something to which they’ve contributed.

Rule #2: Don’t introduce new styles without good reasons. A style guide is often a collection of rules that have no firm basis in logic (unlike deciding whether to end sentences with periods). You’re often merely choosing descriptors, such as whether to call squares of a dialog box “areas,” “boxes,” or “sections.”

If there’s no overwhelming reason to adopt a new convention, you’re better off leaving the guide as is. New rules mean more work, and unless you’re the boss, your co-workers will resent the imposition — that is, unless you have good reasons. That a rule is decreed in the Microsoft Manual of Style is not enough to win your coworkers’ hearts. In fact, it’s the easiest way to create antagonism for it.

Rule #3: Don’t expect any thank-you’s for your hard work. You most likely have put hours into the preparation of your style guide, looking through many other style guides, drafting, editing, collecting comments, and redrafting. You may have sacrificed lunch hours, stayed late at work, or worked from home. Maybe you sacrificed a trip to Disneyland just to work on the style guide. The result? A well-polished work of art.

Don’t expect anyone to be grateful for it. What you see as art is perceived by others as merely additional work. Your thick style guide is something they’ll have to digest, apply, and then be corrected for misapplying. No, make no mistake about it: this style guide means trouble, and you’ve laid it at their door. Expect spite and resentment.

Rule #4: Anticipate not only objections, but extended, relentless wars against what you thought were inconsequential points of style. Inevitably there will be some entries in your style guide that seem inconsequential to you (for example, not introducing a table with a colon, or choosing the term “option button” rather than “radio button”). Be warned that one man’s style trinket is another man’s grammar treasure. A handful of your fellow writers see life in a different light and will inform you of that in no uncertain terms. When dealing with these minor issues, be prepared to make concessions. It’s better to break a grammar rule than shatter relationships with your co-workers.

Rule #5: Listen closely when others express concerns. Don’t make the mistake of returning belligerence with bellicosity. Clarify the reasons for objections, paraphrase to communicate your understanding, and be willing to bite your tongue and concede. One technical writer, Thomas Barker, says his ability to listen to others is what helped him advance his career. Says Barker, “If there were a single thing that advanced my career more than any other, it was learning how to listen to people carefully and respond in a way that lets them know I value their opinions.” Failing to listen is a boomerang. If you don’t listen to others, they won’t listen to you. So listen up!

Conclusion

As you define your style guide, be sure to plan for the social impact of the new rules. We often drown ourselves in grammar minutae, obsess over stylistic consistency, or slavishly follow the Chicago Manual of Style, but these literary matters are not the biggest obstacles in creating a style guide. The biggest obstacle is how each of your teammates responds to change. Take these rules as a roadmap to dealing with their concerns and you can create and implement a style guide that everyone does not resent.


Tom H. Johnson writes online help and how-to guides for a large financial firm in St. Petersburg, Florida. He is also the webmaster for the STC-Suncoast chapter, which is based in the Tampa Bay area, and he does freelance writing.

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