A style guide can be the salvation or bane of any writing project. When I first entered the publishing industry, I thought style guides had been designed to constrain my creativity. After writing my first couple of articles, I realized that style guides were designed to make my life easier.
The first style guide I used was The Chicago Manual of Style. It’s weight alone intimidated me, but I soon embraced it enthusiastically when it helped me with some thorny issues in a client’s computer user manual, which had been written mostly by engineers. The 16th Edition is now available and you can pre-order Chicago’s 17th Edition, which will be out in September 2017 on Amazon.
Years later, when I was writing a weekly column for a local, daily newspaper, I used the Associated Press Stylebook. In between, I used several corporate style guides and even wrote a few for myself and for clients. You can pre-order the AP’s 2017 Edition, which will be out in July 2017, on Amazon.
Although style guides offer much helpful guidance for both writers and editors, if I were to list the most important guidance a style guide can provide, it would be how to implement these five things in each document you write:
• User friendliness
Why these five things and not the dozens of other great gems that most style guides also deliver? When your writing provides consistency in its look and delivery, contains easy-to-read punctuation, is user friendly (especially for technical documents), guides the writer in creating a cohesive story for readers, and brands the service or product about which you are writing, most of the other style elements easily fall into place.
When you provide consistency for things like, headlines, use of numbers, and lists with each list item presented in the same manner as, for example, a complete sentence, a phrase that begins with a verb, or using initial caps for the first word in each list item, your readers will feel more comfortable because they know what to expect.
Punctuation is another area that not only requires consistency, such as whether you use a serial (or Oxford) comma, or the AP (Associated Press) comma. It also requires the use of punctuation that will not distract readers from the message you are trying to convey.
The term ‘user friendly’ may be used most often in reference to technical documentation, however, whether you write technical user guides, fiction, feature or news articles, the best writing is user friendly. That is, it is easy to read and easy for readers to comprehend the message you are trying to convey.
Disjointed writing is not only distracting, it’s confusing and many readers abandon what they’re reading when they can’t follow the writer’s meaning. Good writing flows from topic to each subtopic and then comes full circle to provide a recap that lets the reader finish reading, comfortable in knowing that what they’ve read makes sense and answers their questions.
Branding isn’t just about marketing. It’s about providing an overall, consistent presentation and cohesive definition of any products mentioned and of the writer’s overall message, whether it be a call to action, confirmation that all is well, or guidance on how to do something.
A writer is the champion of the reader. A good style guide is the champion of the writer, making him or her look good—that is, if they use it.
I invite you to share your favorite style guide with us in the comments section below. Which style guides do you use? Which are your favorite and why?