On the Nature of Styleguides


A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

In graduate school, I focused on eighteenth-century British literature: poetry, novels, drama, starring the likes of the Fieldings, Richardson, Radcliffe, Congreve, Pope, Addison, Smollett. Length was no objection– as C.S. Lewis put it, “You can’t get a cup of tea big enough or a book long enough to suit me.”

But boy, did they need styleguides.

Those Augustans capitalized everything. They capitalized nouns–Truth and Love and Sentiment–and italicized everything else. Not to mention the second s that looks like a cursive f.

And they wrote at length. Three volumes were hardly enough. They’d start with a story, then another story would intervene, then a third story … and so on. And plot complications.

It was surprisingly good training for working on the Internet, come to think of it. Links made instant sense.

But styleguides would have made these works easier to scan. Styleguides make for consistency and to settle something, at least for a time. You don’t want to have to consider, say, whether to capitalize Internet Every. Single. Time.

I’ve been working with styleguides ever since I worked on the pre-Internet Police Chief magazine. When the Internet struck, some styleguides never knew what hit them.

And some styleguides never recovered from that. I’ve worked at places that use multiple styleguides for separate divisions: AP for Websites, GPO for correspondence, APA for science/technology.

The more I worked with styleguides, the more I realize their limitations. They won’t solve editorial problems. They’re a record of decisions.  You have to keep them updated and you have to edit them periodically. And if they’re not read, they’re not used–or useful. People have to know about them.

As co-chair, I answer the form emails for the Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN). Even though styleguides are not a plain language issue, we get a lot of questions. People ask us for advice on styleguide issues. When we politely and tactfully refuse to adjudicate and instead ask them to refer to their own styleguide, they often don’t even know if their organization has one. Similarly, styleguides crop up periodically on the list. We’ve had happy hours where we debate styleguides.

I’m always surprised when people write to tell us they’ve received a letter or an email with the F in Federal and G in Government capitalized and want us to counsel the senders. Seriously.

But from a plain language perspective, the only thing a styleguide needs is a note to do all writing in plain language. (Sometimes that makes it official.)

Styleguides are useful because consistency is the only editorial virtue. There’s nothing foolish about consistency.

But styleguides don’t produce plain language that answers users’ needs. They won’t fix everything–they’ll just make publishing a little easier.

And while there’s nothing wrong with easier publishing, meeting your user’s needs is a bigger and harder problem. You can follow your styleguide to the nth degree and still bore them, waste their time, and leave their question unanswered.

Go beyond your styleguide.

Katherine Spivey is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.


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