Technical Writing: Using Style Guides

As a technical editor with ASCENT, I rely on style guides when editing to help ensure consistency in our learning guides. While a style guide is one of the go-to resources for any editor, you don’t have to be an editor to use one. Any writer could benefit from following a style guide, whether they are producing websites, blog posts, novels, manuals, etc.

So, what is a style guide? This is a resource that lays out the rules that should be followed while writing your document. It can address grammar, punctuation, and spelling conventions, and can set standards for formatting and design styles. There are established style guides (for example, The Chicago Manual of Style, The Associated Press Stylebook, or New Hart’s Rules) that are produced by publishers and are commonly used by certain industries (trade book publishing in North America, for example, often follows Chicago style). The rules will be different depending on which style guide you choose, so the key is picking a style guide that works for you and your material and following it as consistently as possible.

Some companies will produce their own in-house style guides to document the situations and corresponding rules unique to their organization. Having a company-specific style guide is particularly helpful to maintain brand consistency, keep track of unique spellings, and set formatting and branding standards. Sometimes a style guide can be as simple as a list of brand names to show proper capitalization and trademarks. It all depends on the needs of the organization and what the guide is being used for.

In our ASCENT learning guides, a few of the conventions we have are using italics for tab names, using bold for the names of commands, and using brackets (< >) to indicate keyboard keys. These are the types of decisions that are tracked in a style guide so that all of the authors and editors working on our projects can apply these conventions consistently. We also strive to be consistent with the software applications featured in our learning guides, so keeping track of names and terms used in each software is another great use for a style guide.

I’ve talked a lot about rules that need to be followed, but remember that having rules doesn't mean they can't be broken occasionally. Style guides are just that – guides. Sometimes a rule needs to be broken (within reason, of course) to make the text clearer for the reader or because it doesn’t work in a specific instance. Editors will often use a separate style sheet to list any choices they make for a particular document that do not follow the preferred style guide. If you have an in-house style guide, it is important to make sure any exceptions to the rules are recorded accordingly. Rules can also change over time, so be sure to review your style guide regularly and keep track of any updates or new decisions.

A style guide can be a useful tool for any project to ensure you are maintaining a clear and consistent message for your readers. To learn more about ASCENT’s technical editing services, which can include creating a style guide for your organization, please email us at tech.writing@ASCENTed.com.

About the Author

Breanne MacDonald

Technical Editor<br><br>Fueled by her meticulous nature, an eye for detail, and a love of books, Breanne has been an editor for over 10 years. She has been a technical editor with ASCENT since 2019, and outside the office she is the vice president of the Editors’ Association of Canada. Breanne holds a Bachelor of Arts from Wilfrid Laurier University and a certificate in publishing from Ryerson University.

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