Crosstown Digital Communications

Mandy Brown and Erin Kissane at Content Strategy New England: A Pragmatic Approach to Editorial Style

Last night, Mandy Brown (left) and Erin Kissane spoke at Content Strategy New England on “A Pragmatic Approach to Editorial Style.” Brown is co-founder and editor for A Book Apart, contributing editor for A List Apart, and community and support manager at Typekit. Kissane is an independent content strategist and editor based in NYC and Portland, Oregon, and a former editor at A List Apart magazine.

Kissane started by comparing the process of creating a website to wearing braces — after you get everything straightened out, the braces come out but you’re asked to wear a retainer — which almost nobody wants to do (or actually does). So a style guide could end up being like a retainer — something designed to help keep your content on the straight and narrow, but easy to shove in a desk drawer and forget about. Kissane said a good style guide should really function like a railing on a stairway you can grab when you’re about to fall.

Ultimately, a style guide should help create consistency. Here’s how it can do that:

  • It provides guidance on voice, style and tone. While content strategy has moved beyond this, it’s still essential. An organization needs to define its voice, outline any tonal shifts and elaborate on its style (formal? not formal?).
  • It defines mechanics and length. This includes spelling and capitalization, length of pages and headlines or instances where one should refer to a house manual (e.g. Chicago, AP)
  • It clarifies how we structure our links. Do we links nouns or verbs? What kind of relationships should links show? This is a codification of human judgment in order to help people make calls down the line.
  • In the case of images, a style guide distinguishes communication from decoration. Content should communicate, and images are no exception. Is this achieved through screenshots, diagrams, information visualizations, illustrations?
  • You need to balance consistency with a healthy variance, varying appropriately from channel to channel.

What happens when style guides go wrong?

  • It is simply not in use.
  • The style guide is isolated, either physically (e.g. a print copy shoved in a bookcase somewhere) or  by being created by a separate team, individual or consultant.
  • It’s frozen – it doesn’t grow due to a hyper-level of detail that does not make for  easy editing, or only one person is capable of suggesting and implementing edits.
  • The content of the style guide is arbitrary or mechanical, i.e. reflecting one person’s pet peeves or going to an absurd level of technical details.
  • The guide descends from on high and doesn’t match the realities or meet the needs on the ground.

How can a style guide stay flexible and adapt? How can people feel ownership and investment?

  • Make the style guide appropriate to the needs of the organization. Fit the existing content creation process and workflow.
  • Strive for consistency, not uniformity. Consistency in style will help the reader move through the content. Uniform content is dull to both read and create.
  • Create principles, not rules. Share these principles to help people understand why the style guide says certain things.
  • Provide real-life examples across all applicable channels, showing how the rules play out in a way people can grasp.

How can a style guide help our content remain authentic?

  • Personality matters. Help convey a sense of character — anthropomorphizing the characters may help achieve this (“our organization wears these clothes and says these things”).
  • Be honest, because people will find out if you’re lying and they will call you out. Case in point: the Cooks Source scandal. A style guide should help define who you are and encourage transparency, which will help inform future responses and communications.
  • No bullshit. Eliminate jargon and trendy language. Just do it. Unsuck it. No mercy. Compile lists of words common to both the organization and the industry and banish them.

How do you integrate a style guide into the fabric of an organization?

  • Put the guidelines where people do their work. Post it on the organization’s wiki or intranet. Weave components into page templates or build them directly into the CMS. Don’t be Clippy, but do provide timely and relevant support.
  • Use your own content in the style guidelines.

How do you convert style guide users into style guide evangelists, in order to help it live on?

  • Building off the idea of sharing principles and not rules, be sure to communicate the why along with the how, so people can appreciate the rationale rather than just blindly follow a process.
  • Ease the adoption process. A style guide should not be delivered with a thud, but rather adopted over time. Let people know who to ask when questions come up. Offer a presentation or a Q&A to explain the style guide for people and allow for feedback and questions.
  • Develop a plan for ownership. How can people contribute to help the style guide change over time? There should be an owner/point person for the style guide, but the time and resources to do the job need to be built into their job description.
  • Plan for evolution. Create a procedure to allow the style guide to adapt and change. Host it in a wiki, where discussion modules can help people collectively evolve the document. Establish a decision-making process. Develop a process for communicating changes to the guide.

How do style guides tie into broader content strategy efforts?

  • Strategy and tactics work best hand in hand, and having a strategy behind your style guide will help it live longer and be more useful.
  • A style guide can be a gateway drug into deeper content work. It is a discrete goal that most people can understand. If they buy into the process of developing a style guide, it may be easier to get them behind more nitty-gritty content projects.

Some good points came up in the Q&A:

  • How can you measure the effectiveness of a style guide? Think of it in terms of measuring the effectiveness of the content. If you ask users to complete reading comprehension tests, how do they perform? Can you measure its effectiveness in terms of recovered productivity?
  • One example of a great style guide? The Economist.
  • Design and content styles should work together from a shared set of principles. Much like you may A/B test functionality and images, consider A/B testing words, as well.
  • Kissane and Brown talked about the idea of agile content development (much like agile software development) and the value of an iterative process (though it works better in-house).
  • When it comes to employing a style guide for distributed publishing processes (e.g. multiple contributors to a blog), including some potentially reluctant writers, they pointed out that the process of writing helps you understand what you are making and what you did. It helps to have an opportunity to synthesize an idea to make sure you understand and can communicate it.

Thanks, Mandy and Erin, for an engaging and informative talk!

Stairwell photo by estherase/Flickr Creative Commons

3 Responses

  1. It’s important to remember that we’re also writing for search engines, or should I say clients expect some Google juice from our efforts/their investment.

    Links should be structured to serve both audiences. Linking isn’t simply nouns vs verbs — “Do we link nouns or verbs?” — links guide search engines and humans along a path to demonstrate relevance:

    How can this company help me, asks the user?
    How does this site fit within the world wide web, the algorithm queries?

    Thanks do much for the write-up Georgy, always a crime to miss a Content Strategy Meetup!

  2. [...] A Pragmatic Approach to Editorial Style: “A good style guide should really function like a railing on a stairway you can grab when you’re about to fall.” Check out all the great editorial advice that Mandy Brown and Erin Kissane shared at Content Strategy New England earlier this month. [...]

  3. [...] in any content style guide, complete with examples and, more importantly, reasons. Borrowing from Erin Kissane and Mandy Brown’s presentation on a pragmatic approach to editorial style (link via Georgy Cohen), let’s adapt what should be included in a style guide as it relates [...]

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