Document your writing rules – style guides


Writing without a style guide or rules with more than one writer is like multiple people trying to arrive at the same spot in the desert when starting from different points and without any maps; everyone will end up in different places. In writing, if you have no rules, then your content will never be consistent and will look unprofessional, even worse, ti will confuse your readers.

Many people go to extremes on this, and the more people involved in writing for a group or company, the more extreme it needs to be.  But, if you are a one-person show, do what you think it right for your users, and then document it. If you are a small group, decide together and document it. As your group grows and as you create more content, consistency becomes more of a problem ,so anything you can do early to avoid the problem will reap benefits later.

Existing style guides

Depending on your industry, there might already be a style guide you can adopt. This greatly simplifies things. All you need to do then is decide where you disagree and you only need to document your exceptions. The bulk of the work is already done for you.  For example, Microsoft has a style guide that is very useful for Windows applications and can even be used to some extent for the Web. Yahoo also has a style guide you can purchase.

The most famous style guide, which has been around for a very long time, is the Chicago Manual of Style. This guide is not a light read and covers almost everything from the traditional world of technical writing. However, this guide is so extensive and really does not address many of the issues related to online writing, so it might have limited use, depending on your industry.

Defining the look of your content

One thing you always need to do is define the look of your content. Most style guides will not define this. For example, you need to define the font you use, the spacing between the paragraphs, the size of the headings, the indentation on bullets, the look of tables, and the margins (if applicable). All of the things that define how your content looks need to be defined. Ideally, a single person or small group of people in your organization will define these things for all team members and then put them into some sort of style sheet, definition, or template. It is critical that you establish a writing process that ensure that these layout details are incorporated into each document. For example, a Microsoft Word template might be created for all documents and each writer starts a document with that template. Another example is that you have a tool that supports the definition of tags, such as an XML editor, and then each writer uses the tags and a definition file specifies how those tags are rendered. The more content your organization creates, the more important addressing this becomes.

Editing for consistency

Even with a style guideline and trained writers, you are going to have consistency problems within and between your documents. In addition to having a style guide, you should have someone edit your documents for consistency. Trained editors that are familiar with your style guidelines can help you spot inconsistencies between and within documents. Other writers within your organization or other internal people within your organization are also good candidates for performing a consistency check.

Often, you can perform a consistency check along with a scheduled edit of your document. This gives the document reviewer one more thing to check, but it is often more efficient than having a special consistency edit.

The right software can really help

The software you use and process you follow to create your documents largely influences what you need to examine the closest in a consistency check. For example, a company that uses a style sheet or predefined commands to create a bulleted list will have all of their bulleted lists the same. In this case, you would check to make sure that the particular situation calls for a bulleted list, but you would not need to check that the spacing and indentation are correct. The more standardized you can make your documents through the use of software features, the less item you will need to check for consistency and the more consistent your documents will be.

Conclusions

You might initially be able to pull off professionalism in your content without a style guide, but it will eventually catch up with you, and the longer you wait to implement writing rules, the more you will need to go back and fix.

10 things to remember about online writing

Writing online content is different than a book. Maybe this is obvious, but for those from the world of  books, there are a lot of habits that are hard to break. For those that have grown up writing for the Web, you might not have ever developed these bad habits. The most important thing to remember is that online content is randomly accessed (opposed to linear). Readers come into online content at random points (through a search, link, or other mechanism). You need to write so that however a reader comes into your content

  • They will not be lost,
  • They will get a complete story (told by the topic)
  • They will be able to get to other related information if applicable, since they can’t just flip pages in online content and get to related topics

So, when writing online content, I have10 points to keep in mind.

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Take advantage of video, audio, and graphics

Content needs to be more than text. You need to take advantage of other media too. Most of the time in technical writing, we think of media as text with paragraphs, tables, and lists. If we stretch, we might include graphics. However, the world of content is bigger than this and you should take advantage of it. So, don’t forget about pictures, audio, and video. In many situations, these media are far more powerful, and more appealing to the reader, than text. Would you rather watch a video demo of how to do yoga or reed a book about it?

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Avoid redundancy and double negatives in your content

Most of the redundancy and double negatives creep into our language from everyday improper usage, so they can be hard to spot unless we really think about it, because we are use to hearing them. The nice thing about redundancy and double negatives are that they are easy to fix. You can pretty much fix the problem as quickly as you can spot them in your content.

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Get away from your content, come back, and revise

When you work on a piece of content for a while, you develop a certain perspective about it – call it getting stuck in a rut – and it is difficult for you to spot problems. Maybe a common example of this is if you write a school report or long email. Read what you have written a couple of months or longer after you write it and you will spot problems, find omissions, and have ideas on how to say things better. When you are too close to something, it is hard to step back and be open minded.

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Competitive evaluation – know what your compeition is doing

Competitive evaluation means looking at what others are doing. Look at what your competitors are doing with their content. Analyze their strengths and weaknesses and learn from them. How is their content better than yours? How can you make your content better? Don’t copy what they are doing, but use it as a basis for improving your content.

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Avoid the most common usage errors

The quality of writing content is going down. Not that it is is an excuse, but in today’s world where anyone can post content on the Web, and does, the quality of content readers are exposed to has dramatically declined. This means you can have less than “perfect” writing and get away with it.  You can, however, address some very common usage errors that if you can avoid, your writing will easily rise to the next level. Fixing these problems s like grabbing the low hanging fruit; it is easy to do.

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Get feedback on your content – find out what your readers think

Reader feedback helps ensure that you are providing the content readers need. Just as internal reviewer feedback helps you spot problems and omissions, customer feedback can do the same. The only difference is at what stage in the content creation process the group sees the content. However, just as you need to evaluate internal reviewer feedback, you need to evaluate reader feedback too. You need to understand what it really means or what the underlying issue is. For example, if a customer says they want more documentation, do they want more details or do they want different content?

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Choose the proper file format for your needs

There are many file formats available for content. Each format has its strengths and drawbacks. The following lists and describes some of the most common file formats:

  • Text – This is a file you can create with almost any tool. The biggest pro of this format is that everyone has a tool for viewing text files. The cons are that there are not many formatting features, you cannot include graphics or tables, and the printed output is not attractive because of the limited formatting options. Text files are great when you want to be absolutely sure any reader will be able to open and view the file.

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Layer your content for different reader needs

On many subjects, there is a lot you can say, but readers, especially online readers, like bite sized pieces of information that are easy to grasp and absorb. Most readers do not need to know everything about a subject; they just need the basics or the most important information. When you write content, be sure to provide what the readers need the most. But what if some readers need more details? This is where layering comes in.

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