Imagine creating your first book, one on which hangs the future of your company-and maybe even the industry you love. Imagine you have a publishing contract, five editors, a eighty contributing authors, hundreds of draft pages, a deadline in five weeks and a growing fear that the book you intended to create is nowhere in sight!
Such was the plight of Jane Deuber, one of the founders of the Direct Selling Women's Alliance, in May 2004. She had described her vision for the book to all the authors and editors, but the content they were sending her was consistent in only one way: it didn't measure up!
She gave me a chance to edit one of the submissions. When she read my version, she gasped, "Why, this is easy to read!" Yes, I had designed a style that delivered the value of her vision. But the more impressive trick was yet to come: describing that style to the other editors in enough detail that they could duplicate it.
To do this, I wrote a style guide.
Guardian of the Brand Voice
Cruising around the Internet, perhaps you've noticed that different sites convey different attitudes: Yahoo is rambunctious, Google is quirky, and Microsoft is all buttoned up. With hundreds of writers producing tens of thousands of pages online, how does a corporation ensure that its brand voice permeates every paragraph?
It writes a style guide.
Do you need a style guide?
I think so.
Before you write any content, you need to design a style that delivers the value of your vision in a way that helps your audience achieve its goals as quickly (or as entertainingly) as possible within its limitations. Even when you are working by yourself, writing is easier when you design the style first instead of working it out as you go along.
When you're working with other writers, the style guide is an indispensable tool for discussing options and achieving consensus before anyone writes anything-giving everyone the chance to write it right the first time, which is always the cheapest way.
When you're working with subject matter experts who may or may not know how to write, a good style guide is your ticket to delegating the entire cleanup to a contract editor. Describe your style design in detail, and you'll find the editors at E-Lance in heartfelt competition for your business because you've clearly defined what they need to do to be successful.
So What's In a Style Guide?
For every information product, my style guide covers these topics:
Information Architecture. This lays out the highways and byways the reader can follow to get to the information she's looking for. When you're designing a book, it's the table of contents, index, and cross-references. When you're designing a Web site, it's the navigation bars, buttons, links, and search function. When you're designing something really big like an enterprise product rollout, it's the kinds of documents (quick start guide, handbook, training workbook, frequently-asked questions) and the order in which the customer encounters and reads them for the most productive experience.
Information Design. This determines what the reader experiences when she finds what she's looking for: how the headings are formatted, how the paragraphs are structured, how lists and tables fit in. In the corporate world, the heading and body fonts are typically decided by marketing department as part of the brand image. When you're working solo, you can further your own image by choosing your own fonts.
Editorial Design. This describes the elements that give your style its attitude: the preferred voice, word choices, punctuation, and capitalization-potentially an immense domain! So start by citing authorities you trust, like the Chicago Manual of Style and the Merriam Webster Collegiate dictionary. Then your style guide only has to cover where your style varies from these standards.
Exceptions. No matter how carefully I plan my guides, at least one corner case always pops up to defy me. Make a list of exceptions so that all contributors can handle them correctly. You'll need the reminders yourself if you have to take a break from the project long enough to cloud your memory.
Getting Started with Style
* If you're a young writer, start looking for these style elements in the content you read. Notice how they affect your reading experience.
* If you're an intermediate writer, improve your productivity by designing an appropriate style before you start writing.
* If you're a senior writer, start discussing these topics with your clients and coworkers, build some consensus, and document the results. Then take advantage by using it either as a teaching tool for young writers or as a job description for contract editors. Either way, you'll find it easier and more cost-effective to delegate and share the load.
* If you're a marketer determined to convey the unique qualities of your brand, endorse the creation of a company style guide and support the effort needed to enforce it in all communications. Stop missing all those little chances to convey your brand's values and to create the unique feelings you want your customer to have about your brand-they add up to a big opportunity!