Why your style guide should be a style manual

A style guide is a very useful resource for any organisation. It helps everyone communicating in and from that organisation maintain consistency. It doesn’t tell them how to communicate, though.

A style guide sets out conventions. It doesn’t tell you how to write, what tone of voice you should use, how to manage content or how to communicate effectively.

If you’ve got a style guide, you must update it continually or you’ll find that you’re speaking to users in a style that’s increasingly old fashioned.

In fact, the term ‘style guide’ is becoming increasingly old fashioned. The term ‘style manual’ is increasing in popularity and style manual editors recognise their job isn’t to tell writers what to do, but why they should do it.

Google’s style manual, for example, tells writers to avoid the pronoun “we” and explains why: “Focus on the user and what they can do with your app, rather than what you or your app is doing for the user.”

The GOV.UK style manual tells writers to use contractions because then they can write in a tone of voice that users trust.

Forget what you learned in school

Not everything you learned, of course, but some of the grammar you were taught is probably out of date.

Let’s say you’re 40 years old and were taught grammar in the 1980s by someone who learned it in the 1950s. Grammar rules have changed a lot in the last 60 years.

I edited a national organisation’s style guide a couple of years ago. Its 8,000 words had a lot of archaic rules, such as telling its writers they couldn’t end a sentence with a preposition. This assumes firstly that their writers know what a preposition is and secondly that they would be writing in Latin rather than English.

Everything they were publishing was stuffy and rigid. Using an inflexible style guide was making their writing difficult to trust and engage with. Yes, I did just end that sentence with a preposition. I hope we can still be friends.

Did you notice I used ‘learned’ rather than ‘learnt’ in this section? A good style manual will tell you which spelling to use and why. I don’t know who you are, but I know that you might not be British or that British English might not be your first language. If so, you’re likely to be more comfortable with ‘learned’.

By using a word that all English speakers are familiar with, I’m making sure that I can be understood by all users.

Your audience knows best

You’ve probably read an American magazine recently. On the internet. Or the ‘Internet’ as it most likely would have said. Almost all American journalism follows the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook, which insists on capitalising ‘internet’.

Or it did until earlier this year when AP announced it was changing to the lower case usage. That’s earlier as in earlier in 2016, about 15 years after everyone else thought it was a good idea.

Do you know anyone who uses ‘phone instead of phone? I’ve had it in draft documents in the last year. That’s as in 2016, not 1916. Most users would be confused by it and possibly think it was a typo. If I used ‘phone in content, it would slow down users’ comprehension and lose their trust.

A style manual should tell you why using sentence case makes your text easier to read. Advertisers have known for decades that possessive apostrophes in slogans and display copy slow down users’ comprehension. You’ll never see something that offers “6 months’ free credit”, even though that’s correct English. Likewise, apostrophes in abbreviations and rogue capitalisation makes content harder to read and less approachable.

It’s a manual not a bible

The GOV.UK style manual has a words to avoid section. This was originally a ‘banned words’ list. I worked on transitioning central government departments to GOV.UK in 2012. The first content we transitioned was government policies.

If there’s one thing that policies like to do, it’s ‘promote’ things. There are a number of synonyms I used, but quite often the government might not have been promoting anything. There may have been a target. So instead of, say, ‘promoting energy efficiency’ there was really an action in, for example, ‘giving solar energy grants to householders’.

What if, though, I’d simply swapped ‘promoting’ for ‘encouraging’? Well, I’d have swapped one dogma for another. If in the last 4 years users had read many times that the government was encouraging something, they’d have lost trust in the word ‘encouraging’.

Use a style guide if you’re unsure about a spelling or a capitalisation. But use a style manual to help you create content in language that your users can understand, trust and find.