Corporate style guide [was: Re: Punctuating the end of bullet points?]

Subject: Corporate style guide [was: Re: Punctuating the end of bullet points?]
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: TECHWR-L <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>, Peter Neilson <neilson -at- alltel -dot- net>
Date: Thu, 04 May 2006 10:12:46 -0400

Janice Gelb responded to my comments about not always cleaving to the corporate style guide: <<However, individual writers should *not* just discard corporate style guide solutions as they're writing if they happen to personally disagree with a particular decision. That defeats the purpose of a corporate style guide.>>

Many would argue that "corporate style" is an oxymoron. That aside, I was thinking more from the editor's viewpoint than the writer's viewpoint. It's certainly true that if every writer simply disregards style recommendations they disagree with, this wastes everyone's time because the editor charged with enforcing the style guide will simply have to undo all that work, cursing the author all the while. That's not a good thing for anyone.

Nonetheless, I stick by my guns: no style guide is ever completely comprehensive, and just about any guide (if slavishly followed) can lead to nonsensical choices that provide no service to the reader. The people responsible for compliance with the style guide should have authority to overrule the guide when that's appropriate. This should never be a matter of preference or simple rebellion against authority; it should be a carefully considered decision intended to benefit the user.

Janice also noted: <<However, corporate style guides are intended to ensure consistency among a varied group of writers so that all publications issued by the company have a common style. If a writer in that situation has a serious problem with a recommendation, presumably some editorial body exists to review decisions.>>

Fully agreed with the general principle, and indeed, style guides should evolve over time to cover exceptions to the original guidelines and new situations not covered by those original guidelines. The important point is that the guide breaks down when you try to apply it to situations for which it wasn't intended.

The more interesting and diverse the work you do, the more of these situations you encounter. Janice, writing from the corporate (specifically, Sun) perspective, deals with more predictable material than I do; my material covers a wide range of material in the sciences, with a correspondingly wide range of exceptions. The more predictable and constrained the work, the more likely it is that you shouldn't violate the style guide; the less predictable and constrained, the more often you'll have to make a decision about whether advice is relevant.

The ideal situation is that the editor, who is in charge of enforcing the style guide, should have the authority to sit down with the writer and discuss whether an exception is justified. Occasionally, it will be. That's where I return to my original statement that there's a difference between consistency and foolish consistency: the former supports the reader; the latter supports only the style guide, irrespective of whether doing so supports the reader.

Peter Neilson responded: <<There are times when a corporate style guide is exceedingly unhelpful. We watched as our carefully devised plan for having a different cover for each manual (so that the user could pick out the one he needed at a glance) was drowned by the Corporate Style Guide. Suddenly the new books were all identical, and you had to read each book's spine or perhaps its interior to figure out which one you held in your hand.>>

This is why I'm more heretical than most editors when it comes to style guides: it doesn't take long before people begin treating them as bodies of inviolable law, and they become so atherosclerotic that they lead to stupid decisions. The compromise in this situation is to do what we did when I worked for the feds: establish a flexible "visual identity program". The result is a set of guidelines that ensure that every document in a series is instantly recognizable as belonging to that series, but that also allows each document to be visually distinct.

One simple example was for a series of technical reports we used to publish: Each report was required to have the departmental wordmarks at the top and bottom, the title in a fixed position below the top wordmarks, and a consistent color scheme for every part of the cover. But an image area occupying roughly the bottom two-thirds of the page was left to the designer to fill with a distinctive image. To me, this represented the ideal situation: consistency where it was useful, and flexibility where a distinctive solution was useful.

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Geoff Hart ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca
(try geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com if you don't get a reply)
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punctuating the end of bullet points: From: T K
Punctuating the end of bullet points?: From: Geoff Hart
Re: Punctuating the end of bullet points?: From: Janice Gelb
Corporate style guide [was: Re: Punctuating the end of bullet points?]: From: Peter Neilson

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