How to Choose the Right Style Guide for Technical Writers

How do I choose the right style guide for my technical writers? I’m setting up a Technical Publications Dept. for a Financial Services company. What is the best style guide to encourage the staff to use?

The benefit of adopting a style guide is that it puts guidelines in place to ensure consistency across all documents that go out the door.

Style guides don’t make poor writers better, but they certainly are a step in the right direction!

style-guide

Style guides can improve the quality and presentation of documentation. They establish a layer of professionalism that may not have been there before. They also reduce arguments and ‘loose cannons’ within the department, as the style guide becomes the acknowledged reference.

There are at least four points to consider when selecting a style guide.

1. The Reader

Consider who will read your documents and ask:

  • What is their reading level?
  • What is their expertise?
  • What is their motivation to read your material?
  • Where do they read, e.g. office, while commuting, at home?
  • What style do they prefer, e.g. formal or informal?

If you have different groups of readers, explore which group requires the most attention, and which guide suits their needs the most.

2. The Publication

If you’re producing one publication for the same readership, your task should be easy. However, if you’re managing press releases, technical documents, web content and newsletters, one style guide may not meet all your needs… and using two could be confusing.

Most Fortune 1000 companies (with a variety of publications and audiences) use an industry standard style guide as their basic guide and write exceptions for different divisions.

For example, the Marketing Dept might use the standards in The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual, but use The Chicago Manual of Style for other sections.

3. The Editors value style guides

Difficulties arise when untrained staff members have to use the style guide when producing web content, reports, documents, etc. They find manuals hard to use, (tip: AP is probably the easiest) and often simply ignore them.

To resolve this, (for the non-trained writing staff) prepare a style booklet based on your main guide. Determine the most important style points and write examples in real-work sentences. Keep the booklet short and easy to read.

4. Your Preference

If you don’t have a preference, test it. Check the most important style questions in the guides you’re considering, and then edit an article using each guide. Look at the results and once you have selected your primary guide, keep the rest for reference as each have their specialist areas.

PS – In case you don’t have it, take a look at The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr

Since first published in 1957, it remains the most compact and lucid handbook we have for matters of basic principles of composition, grammar, word usage and misusage, and writing style. The New York Times: “Buy it, study it, enjoy it. It’s as timeless as a book can be in our age of volubility.” Get the Elements of Style here

Download these templates to start

Acceptance Test Plan

Contingency Plan

Software Development Templates

Acquisition Plan

Conversion Plan

Software Requirements Specification

Action Plan

Cost Benefit Analysis

Software Testing

API Documentation

Database Design

Standard Operating Procedures (SOP)

Audience Analysis

Datasheet

Statement of Work

Availability Plan

Deployment Plan

System Administration Guide

Bill of Materials

Design Document

System Boundary

Business Case

Disaster Recovery Plan

System Design Document

Business Continuity

Disposition Plan

System Specifications

Business Plan

Documentation Plan

Technical Writing Templates

Business Process

Employee Handbook

Test Plan

Business Requirements

Error Message Guide

Training Plan

Business Rules

Expression of Interest

Transition Plan

Capacity Plan

Fact Sheet

Troubleshooting Guide

Case Study

Feasibility Study

Use Case

Change Management Plan

Functional Requirements

User Guide

Communication Plan

Grant Proposal

Verification and Validation Plan

Concept of Operations

Implementation Plan

White Papers

Concept Proposal

Installation Plan

Work Instructions

Configuration Management Plan

Interface Control Document

Software Development Templates

Acceptance Test Plan

Maintenance Plan

Software Requirements Specification

Acquisition Plan

Market Research

Software Testing

Action Plan

Marketing Plan

Standard Operating Procedures (SOP)

API Documentation

Needs Statement

Statement of Work

Audience Analysis

Operations Guide

System Administration Guide

Availability Plan

Policy Manual

System Boundary

Bill of Materials

Project Plan

System Design Document

Business Case

Proposal Manager Templates

System Specifications

Business Continuity

Proposal Template

Technical Writing Templates

Business Plan

Quality Assurance Plan

Test Plan

Business Process

Release Notes

Training Plan

Business Requirements

Request for Proposal

Transition Plan

Business Rules

Risk Management Plan

Troubleshooting Guide

Capacity Plan

Scope of Work

Use Case

Case Study

Security Plan

User Guide

Change Management Plan

Service Level Agreement (SLA)

Verification and Validation Plan

Communication Plan

Setup Guide

White Papers

Concept of Operations

Social Media Policy

Work Instructions

Concept Proposal

Contingency Plan

 

Configuration Management Plan

Conversion Plan