A writer’s cheat sheet — and how I maintain mine.
One of the challenges facing writers — especially tech writers — is maintaining consistency and proper usage of words and phrases that describe the things we write about. Is it toolbar, tool bar, ToolBar, or Tool bar? Is it Fonts panel, Font panel, Font window, or Fonts Pane? Is it iBookstore or iBookStore? Is it inspector or Inspector?
This might seem trivial to most folks, but for writers and editors, it’s very important. Inconsistent or incorrect use of established terms is one of the things that mark the work of an amateur. Professional writers do everything in their power to get things like this right — and editors help.
Style guides help, too. A style guide is a collection of words or phrases that might be used in a work, all presented as they should be in writing. You may have heard of some of the more famous style guides, including The Chicago Manual of Style and The Associated Press Stylebook. These are style guide books published for professionals who write about a wide range of topics.
But there are also style guides for more narrow topics. Apple, for example, publishes a 244-page document called the Apple Publications Style Guide. This is one of the books I turn to when I write my Mac OS books and articles. Written for developers and Apple’s in-house documentation teams, it lists the right and wrong ways to use hundreds of words, product names, and phrases. Not only does this include a correct list of all Apple trademarks, but it goes into tiny details. For example, did you know that you can “click the icon” but you can’t “click on the icon”? Page 37 of the latest (2009) edition is pretty specific on that point.
Individual publishers also have style guides. For example, when I wrote Microsoft Outlook for Mac 2011 Step-by-Step for Microsoft Press, I was handed not one but two style guides. They covered all of the product names and program terms I might use, as well as rules about usage. For example, I wasn’t allowed to write a sentence like this: “Outlook enables you to send and read email.” Why? Well, the word enables (in that kind of usage) was verboten. (The average reader has no idea what writers deal with when writing technical books for well-established publishers.)
My Style Guide Needs
Although I never used to have trouble remembering the proper forms and usages of the words and phrases I included in my books, as I’m aging — and as my life becomes more complex — I’m having trouble remembering the little things. So this past summer, when I worked on Mac OS X Lion: Visual QuickStart Guide for Peachpit Press, I developed and maintained my own style guide for the book.
The trick was to put the style guide in a place where it was easy to consult as I worked. I wrote (and laid out) the book on my old 24-inch iMac. I was living in my RV at the time, comfortably parked at an RV park with full utilities, but my workspace wasn’t large enough for the luxurious dual 24-inch monitor setup I have in my home office. I experimented with keeping the list of words and phrases in a Word document file, but the amount of overhead — Word running all the time, big window with all the trimmings, etc. — made it an awkward solution. Ditto for Evernote. All I needed was a tiny window where I could list the words I needed to use — these applications made maintaining and consulting such a list multiple times throughout the day a real chore.
The Solution: Stickies?
I stumbled onto the solution while writing the book. One of the apps that comes with Mac OS X is Stickies. This is an app whose sole purpose is to put virtual sticky notes up on your screen.
I never liked the app. I thought it was kind of dumb. After all, who would use an app to put a sticky note onscreen when you can just put a real sticky note on your screen?
But then I realized that the tiny windows Stickies creates were perfect for the simple lists I needed to consult. I could easily fit them on my screen, beyond the area I needed to work with InDesign.
And so I began creating and maintaining my style guides in Stickies.
And I continue to do so today.
There are a lot of benefits to using Stickies as a solution for this problem:
- The contents of Sticky Notes are saved, even if you quit the application.
- Stickies are easily modified and updated.
- Stickies supports formatting, so if I want to remind myself about a word or phrase that should never be used, I can format it as strikethru text.
- Stickies can be exported as plain text, so I could, theoretically, save a style guide list before closing the Stickies window when the book is done.
- Stickies take up very little room onscreen.
- All active Stickies notes open automatically when you open the app.
- It’s easy to set up my computer so Stickies automatically opens at startup.
Sounds good, no?
For me, it’s a win-win. I get a solution to my problem. But what I also get is a reason to use a silly little free app like Stickies.