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!

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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