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Creating a Style Guide Advisory Group

Andy Werth

Technical editors often must create and maintain a company or department style guide. Good editors know it is crucial to draw on colleagues to help determine effective style guidelines. For example, if an editor doesn't know what to call an unnamed button in the user interface, it may be best to ask the customer service team how they and the customers refer to the button and add this name to the style guide—a method far preferable to simply making up a name. For guidelines about how to refer to the company’s products, the marketing department might be the best source. Many groups in your company—IT, engineering, programming—can be a valuable resource as you build your style guide.

But getting thoughtful, punctual responses from colleagues about style questions can be difficult. This is especially frustrating when a document is on a tight deadline. A large company with an established documentation department may not have this problem; SMEs, or other editors, can often be queried for quick answers. However, if you're a lone editor with few resources, you must draw on personnel throughout your company to establish effective guidelines.

In that case, you may need a Style Guide Advisory Group. In my experience, a Style Guide Advisory Group:

  • Reduces the time colleagues take to respond to your questions and increases the number of responses. (This may be because being part of a recognized group helps establish accountability.)
  • Encourages a sense of ownership in the style guide across teams, making it more likely that people will want to contribute to its success.
  • Ensures that style decisions address readers' needs.
The following six steps will help you assemble your Style Guide Advisory Group.

Make the List

Make a list of personnel who you think would be a good fit for the group. Try to include one person from any group you depend on for product or end-user knowledge. If you're not familiar with anyone in a particular group, ask coworkers for a recommendation.

Make the Pitch

Once you've made a list, approach each person. Explain why the group is important and why you think they'd be a good fit. For example, mention the high quality of their other work, their attention to detail, or their deep familiarity with many products.

Explain the time commitment honestly. Try to limit their commitment to about 15-30 minutes per week; anything more may be asking too much of people whose time is already stretched thin. Stress that most communication will be through e-mail (this can do wonders; for many, "meeting" is a dirty word). When explaining the time commitment, remember that it will probably be greater if you're just getting the style guide off the ground.

Ask the Boss

Once they've expressed interest in the group, talk with their supervisor. (In some organizations, protocol may require that you speak with a supervisor before approaching their subordinate.) Emphasize the group’s value to their team. If you’re speaking with a customer service supervisor, stress that effective documents can reduce the number of calls from end users, and explain how a customer service team member will help documents achieve this effectiveness.

Once you’ve emphasized the group’s value, clearly define the time commitment. If you’ve made a persuasive case for the group, you’ll find that most supervisors will allow their team member to participate.

Put it in Writing

Once the group is assembled, send a welcome e-mail that states the group's purpose, guidelines, and expectations. Guidelines might include specifying how they should respond to your questions. For example, should they respond only to you, or should they copy other members on their response and participate in a cross-group discussion that you moderate? Expectations might include that they respond to each question, that their response be carefully considered (a quick response that’s poorly informed is worse than no response), and that they respond by the deadline.

Put it to Work

Once your group is assembled, start submitting questions. A few guidelines:

  • Don't bother group members with queries outside their area of expertise; not all queries must be sent to every member.
  • State your question clearly. When possible, anticipate what their answers might be and phrase the question in a multiple-choice format. This allows them to choose a letter rather than type a long response—but make it clear they don’t have to choose among the answers you’ve provided.
  • Include the day and time by which you'd like a response. It may help to add a reminder to your calendar to "close" the question.
  • When the response time is up, evaluate the answers and send your decision to everyone to whom you sent the question. Explain your reasoning. Before announcing your decision, wait until either you have a response from everyone or the due date has arrived.
  • Always thank them for their time.

Make it Better

After the group has been in place for about six weeks, send a quick survey to the members. Ask whether their expectations about the time commitment are being met and request suggestions for improvement.

Once you've established your Style Guide Advisory Group, you'll likely find that the number of people who respond to your style questions increases, the time it takes to get responses decreases, and your company’s style guide—and therefore your company’s documents—are more effective.

Page last modified on Thursday, May 20, 2010 12:40:27am EDT
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