Recipe for a Style Guide

Wired Online has recently announced its plans to drop capitalization in internet, web, and net, but Wired Magazine continues to capitalize these words. Which should you do? For the most part, it's up to you. To ensure consistency on such tricky words, most editors will have a style guide.

This kind of style is the way you present yourself in words as well as the mechanics of words. Style addresses physical and editorial conventions.

If you don't have the luxury of creating one, there are a few excellent resources for your use. The AP Style Guide and Chicago Manual of Style are the bibles for many editors. When you need to cite another source, use the MLA Handbook or Columbia Guide to Online Style for the rules. Just want a simple, small book you can carry with you? Strunk & White's Elements of Style is a winner.

Be warned that none of the cookbooks has a reference to words like "e-mail" and don't resolve all the issues you may encounter. In this case, you could refer to Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications. Here's what it says about E- words:

"In general, avoid forming new words with 'e-' (for electronic) unless you know your audience will understand. Some words that may be appropriate in certain circumstances are 'e-commerce' and 'e-money.' 'E-mail' and 'e-form' are acceptable. Use lowercase and always hyphenate for clarity."

Here's where creating your own recipe comes in. You can use a few other recipes and throw in your own modifications to come up with what best fits your tastes. Of course, we want to keep our readers in mind when creating the guide.

Start by thinking about the topics you write about. If it is high tech, then it helps to explore all the terms along with the spelling, punctuation, and capitalization. Check out the Jargon File, the online version of The New Hacker's Dictionary or Writing for Multimedia's Terminology. If you're in another field, then you'll want to explorer for a similar resource. BBC News has a radio style guide and the GuardianUnlimited Style Guide is for writers and editors. Example of style guides for building Web sites include Lynch and Horton's Web Style Guide and New York Public Library's NYPL:Style Guide. For those in medicine, University of Washington presents the most frequently used entries from the AMA Style Guide.

The next ingredient to tackle is physical conventions. For instance, when starting a new paragraph, do you indent or use a double hard return? What font size, face, and style will you use for titles? Will the titles be capitalized or in sentence case? This is similar to a cookbook. All the recipes are formatted the same way. Even CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) is a recipe since it ensures formatting consistency.

Once you make the tough decisions, the easy part comes next. You throw all the selected ingredients into one pan, or in this case, one document. The style guide should be organized to make it easy for your writers can find what they need.

Finally, put it where everyone can access it. It doesn't have to be a book. It can be a one or two page document. It's a living document that you can continuously revise. Heck, use a blogging tool to easily manage it.

Now back to the hard part, getting everyone to follow the new guide.

Meryl K. Evans, Content Maven, is the writer and editor of many articles and publications including eNewsletter Journal, Shavlik's The Remediator, and Web Design @ InformIT. To get your feed on things geeky, webby, and wordy or to subscribe to free newsletters, visit her site at http://www.meryl.net/blog/.

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