Style guides in the age of digital
Everyone’s a publisher now. As a result, style – the rules about spelling, grammar and presentation – causes more headaches than ever before.
Once, only newspapers and book publishers followed house rules on spelling and presentation. Now, steel makers, armies and even traditionally secretive bodies such as MI5 have style guides for their brochures, annual reports and ‘digital presence’. We’re no different at Coracle, apart from not being spies. We produce masses of content so we use a number of style guides, including our own which sits on the Coracle intranet.
We put a lot of thought into choosing which style guides to use. Here’s what we decided, and why:
- The New Oxford Style Manual
We chose the New Oxford for various reasons. Firstly because it makes sensible choices about the basics like names, measurements, numbers and hyphenation. Secondly because it’s pretty detailed and includes a substantial spelling dictionary. And finally, because it’s up to date.
- The Yahoo! Style Guide
This is what we use for questions about digital content. It discusses how to format a link well, how to style headings and how to make your content accessible. It’s not really a style guide in the traditional sense; it would be better to call it a guide to producing online content.
- The Coracle Style Guide
When we have questions about style that can’t be answered by the Yahoo and Oxford guides, which happens every day, one of us approaches the Coracowl and asks for guidance (the Coracowl helps people who are lost on our website). The Coracowl stirs, there comes a faint whirring sound, and after a few minutes it answers. We then inscribe the revealed lore in the Coracle Style Guide.
The CSG is our in-house guide to things like specialised terminology, the proper way to style clients’ names, the names of our own products and some of the conventions we’ve settled on after discussion. It’s an evolving document designed for everyone in the business, but will always be short enough to read in less than ten minutes.
What is a style guide for?
In some organisations, the main purpose of a style guide is a weapon to be used against new hires and management. A skilled content producer will gently lead his or her boss into pronouncing the definitive rule on one thing or another – formatting a table of contents, say – then gleefully point out that the style guide says something different. But the only sensible reason to have a style guide is to ensure that whatever you publish is consistent. In the case of our own content, consistency makes it easier for you, the reader, to read. When we produce content for clients, a style guide makes sure the content matches their branding, voice and (in highly regulated industries) their legal obligations.
But what is a style guide?
That’s a very good question, considering. In the age of print, it was easy to answer. A style guide was a series of headings and rules dealing with how we ought to spell program and how much white space should follow a full stop. Sometimes, it would attempt to prescribe writing style – in the sense of an authorial voice – but as a rule it stuck to specifics and left the airy-fairy stuff to editors.
In the age of digital, style guides come in all shapes and sizes and go far beyond traditional print guides to answer questions about design, user interface and voice. This is wise, because an online editor needs to be much more than somebody who likes crossing things out with red ink. They need to understand a little bit about the code that makes the content appear, how people read online, how search engines treat content, the effects typography and layout have on the target audience and a dozen other topics.
The BBC Global Experience Language site is a nice example of a guide that tries to bring all these threads together. Google’s Android Design does a similar task for people making mobile sites. But at some point, online editors have to recognise the point at which a question is no longer their job. For somebody curious about all aspects of digital and design, that can be difficult!
Learning is the key
In the end, rules are important but compelling content is really really important. Getting and keeping engaged learners is more of a challenge for an organisation than grammar. So we’re pragmatic about the whole process, and will always focus more on how we can incentivise and reward learners, guide them through challenging material and help them gain the satisfaction of achievement.