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Style Wars

Swift’s “Tale of a Tub,” featuring fabulous “Battel” (CC)

First, your company—no matter what stage of development it’s in—needs a consistent editorial style. It’s important to your reputation in the marketplace, to your brand. Technical documentation, as noted elsewhere, touches and affects all company functions. Technical marketing communications are essential to survival. All should adhere to approved and communicated style guidelines.

But then again, just as there are Star Wars, the Hundred Years’ War, and World Wars I and II, there are the style and grammar wars. And like most wars fought by writers, quibbles become blood baths. I’ve been in meetings where 30 eternal minutes have been eaten up by escalating rows about how and when to use a punctuation mark. It’s neither pretty nor productive.

As well, what you don’t need are self-appointed (Well, I learned from ….”) style experts from all over your organization sticking their fingers in the style-guide pie. You hire experts to handle communications. So let them do their job. You’ll know soon enough if they are capable of making reasonable and productive decisions that add value to your company.

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At the same time, smart and reasonable people do often disagree about
editorial style. For example, people think differently on the questions
of Net words, hyphenating  compound adjectivesor the  Oxford Comma
—topics among the nuts and bolts of editorial style.

What style guides do at library closing time.

Style guides at library closing time. (Woodcut from “Battel,” CC)

But if consistency is the aim of creating a style guide, and if the aim of a style guide is to maintain a consistent company ethos and help build brand, you need to eliminate style waffling in your company communications, both internal and external. This is why—even though everybody in your technology company is so busy*—you would be wise to schedule a session where your communications professionals lay down the law on the certitudes of your company’s editorial style.

This session might also include helpful advice on how to think about communications and marketing messaging, but it must focus on the company-written or adopted editorial guide—the rules of the road for communications. If you make it a practice to have human resources brief employees on policies dealing with break time, lunch, travel and fraternization, don’t you owe it to your brand to orient people on the details of how your company expects them to communicate in the marketplace and internally?

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*Whenever I encounter people who express how insanely busy they are (see this HBR discussion), I hear, in my secret thoughts, Chaucer’s description of the Man of Law’s in The Canterbury Tales:

“Nowher so bisy a man as he ther nas,
And yet he semed bisier than he was.”

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Posted in Communicate, Communicate Your Technology, Editorial Style, Technical Documentation
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