Style Guides: A Confession

This post is the first of two parts on the frustrations and the future place of style guides.

I hate all style guides. Well, except mine.

From afar, a style guide is a compelling idea. With a style guide, you could coordinate the efforts of several writers. A group could work, simultaneously and mostly autonomously, on the same document while still giving the impression of a single voice. Multiple writers could produce a consistent, uniform whole instead of a schizophrenic mess. That said, I still hate style guides.

I’ve come to suspect that this is a thought most, if not all, technical writers have thought at some point or another. Many are unlikely to admit to it. There are two main reasons many writers do not acknowledge their problems with style guides: many a technical writer’s job performance is judged on the basis of how fastidiously they adhere to the local style guide and, well, their style guide is special.

If a writer comes up with her own style guide—or she has the authority to create and modify the house style guide—a style guide is just an explicit description of how that author would have written in isolation. It’s a case of “paving the cowpaths.” While writing the style guide may take time, the style guide itself doesn’t add any work to the process of writing documentation. It just tells others what an existing process inside the writer’s head looks like.

On the other hand, a style guide out of the control of a writer is a recipe for additional, tedious effort. A sufficiently complicated style guide adds considerable overhead to the writing process; not only must a writer articulate an idea in words, but it must be checked against the arbitrary rules of a style guide.

And all style guides are arbitrary. What’s the difference between e-mail and email? Almost every reader is going to recognize e-mail and email as referring to the same concept. Choosing one or the other is entirely arbitrary; a collection of such arbitrary choices is called a style guide. The arbitrariness of a style guide is where the mental overhead of a style guide resides. Each writer’s stylistic choices will be different than all other’s; bending to a particular style guide can be a tiresome exercise. And who wants to do that?

Perhaps, in the future, we’ll have software to understand and monitor documentation for style guide violations, like a sort of natural language compiler. But for now, I’m confessing: I hate style guides, except mine. But I’ll use one anyway.

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

4 thoughts on “Style Guides: A Confession

  1. Well, I guess if you could throw enough editorial energy at it, you could overcome consistency issues later in the writing process. But like so many things, I think it’s a lot easier—and, perhaps the most important metric in a lot of organizations, cheaper—to solve the problem closest to its point of origin. I imagine it would take an editor (or editorial team) an order of magnitude more effort to make a body of writing consistent after the fact than it would to constrain the original authors at the time of composition.

  2. Well, I suppose a robot editor would be that natural language compiler I was thinking of. Which would be awesome.

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