Some Thoughts on Style Guides

Subject: Some Thoughts on Style Guides
From: Tom Murrell <trmurrell -at- yahoo -dot- com>
To: TECHWR-L <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Fri, 7 Jul 2000 05:47:26 -0700 (PDT)

There could be several legitimate reasons why some managers in an organization
might think a style guide was "a luxury and a waste of time." If time spent
writing a style guide is time taken away from documenting products, services,
or procedures when resources are limited, it might make sense to put off a
concerted effort to produce a style guide, which is for internal use only,
rather than documentation that might be integral to a company's success. If
your plan for producing a style guide shuts down the whole department while the
guide is produced so that all the writers can participate in its development,
that might be an unreasonable allocation of scarce and precious resources.

I've worked in a few places where no style guide existed. In each case, I've
found it necessary to establish some rules as I went along--how to spell
certain words, how to punctuate certain grammatical constructions, how to
organize the materials in a set of documentation--so that the work products
would look consistent at the end of a project. But I have avoided stopping work
to do the guide. I've just let it evolve as I went along.

Personally, I think a well-done style guide makes it easier to get my work done
in a timely fashion. A style guide allows several people to work on
documentation with at least a faint hope that their combined end products would
look consistent when the documentation is delivered. However, I would avoid at
all costs, making it appear that I was just adding time to a project that would
not demonstrably contribute to the project's goals to write a style guide. I
would just grab one of the pre-existing guides--even though I seldom find them
to my personal liking--and get on with the job.

I'm not trying to wax platonic here, but I would recommend balance. Don't let
the lack of a style guide bring work to a halt (not that the original questions
suggested that at all), collect the necessary rules as you go along. If you
have, or are, a writer in charge or a chief editor or some such, let that
person make the rules. Don't argue a lot about each decision and move on. If
management says no style guide, you don't have to like it, and you'll find ways
to collect the necessary rules for your documentation as you go along.

But don't let them think you are wasting their time and money on "luxuries" at
the expense of their project. They won't thank you for it, even it--especially
if--you are right.

Tom Murrell
Senior Technical Writer
Alliance Data Systems
Columbus, Ohio
mailto:trmurrell -at- yahoo -dot- com

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