About Style Guides…and a Tip for Writers

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

Chicago Manual of StyleStyle 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.

Microsoft Outlook 2011Individual 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

Microsoft Outlook 2011Although 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?

Stickies IconI 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.

Style Guide in StickiesAnd 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.

10 thoughts on “About Style Guides…and a Tip for Writers

  1. I appreciate this informative post and the time you took to write it. I think it would be helpful to members of our writers group on LinkedIn, especially for newcomers.

    I would be posting a link to this article there.

    Our group is Freelance Writers for Internet Content Mills. You’d find us on LinkedIn, and I would not post our link here, for that seems like spamming. You can check us out on LinkedIn, and we’d be happy if you join us and share your experiences.

    • I find interesting that you should find so much value in this post. After all, I’ve been blogging about writing for more than eight years. There’s a lot more valuable content on this site for writers than this. I hope you stick around next time long enough to find it.

      As for your group, I’m rather amazed that you use the term “mill” in its name. The term mill conjures up an image of a factory where thing are churned out, often in huge volume, by workers who perform repetitive, mundane tasks at an hourly rate. It’s a term I’d be loathe to apply to the way I work or the people I work for.

      And then there’s “puppy mill,” which can’t possibly have positive connotations for anyone.

      I suspect the term “mill” in your group name is turning off a lot of people who might otherwise join. Or maybe I’m just missing some sort of inside joke.

      Anyway, thanks for taking the time to comment. Best of luck with your writing endeavors.

  2. Yes, I did find other things of value and that’s what I indicated to our group of ‘mill’ writers.

    We have accepted the reality and find that whatever might we think of ourselves, and whatever be our levels of learning, to the world of internet business we are just resources to be used, and if they could have substituted writers with computer programs, they would have done so.

    The identity of a ‘writer’ exists only in personal endeavors, or where we have the luck to find a human client who still respects learning.

    Look around the freelance boards and job boards, people offering $1 for 100-500 words.

    They get what they pay for, and we know that when we are doing such work, it is ‘mill’ work required to put food on the table. Nothing more, and nothing less.

    There’s more mechanical application of parameters to such work than the display of finesse. Doesn’t matter whether you are Shelley or Shakespeare, if the keyword is not there in the title, then your article is scrapped. So, it is mill work.

    It’s better to look reality in the face and distinguish the use of time and resources into their right categories.

    BTW our group has close to a thousand members mostly from US, UK, and Australia.

    • I just wrote a lengthy response to that, clicked the wrong button, and lost it. Oh, well.

      The gist of what I’d written is this: content mills are causing the devaluation of writing skills. The more writers who write for them, the less money they’ll offer. Sure, they get what they pay for, but all they want are words and phases that Google well. It’s a sign of the times. And it’s getting harder than ever for old-school professional writers like me to make the good living we once did.

      I blame content mills, in part, for that. I’d rather quit writing than add to the problem by writing for a content mill.

  3. May be you lost the response because it was willed so.

    Writers are emotional by nature, they have to be, and spontaneous reactions sometimes make us do regrettable things.

    I agree with you that content mills devalue writing, but the snobs among us devalue writers.

    The name of our group was designed specifically so that people with pretensions keep themselves out by their own choice, rather than the group feeling uncomfortable with their presence.

    I have no doubt you are a good writer, and you have interesting and likable approaches to things that pique your interest.

    I would say only this, humility is the mark of those of us who claim to be truly educated. That is what we learn, from culture and lineage, and that is what is embodied in Aristotlean sophrosyne.

    We are all a little bit crazy, otherwise what am I doing here spending time on your personal blog?

    Just having a conversation across geographic and cultural boundaries.

    People who are members of our group are mostly highly established writers, not like me that they are referred only here and there in Universities and published books by other authors in the US.

    There are times when we have no other recourse but to write for mills, for we are writers and know little of other professions. And also we love writing, and would continue to use every avenue at our discretion.

    Your post has value to us only because it does not talk of mill writing, but of what we learnt and practiced, and were valued for, until writing became content and rules of SEO began to override rules of grammar and style.


    • May be you lost the response because it was willed so.

      I hope you’re not referring to “destiny” or some higher being. You won’t get any traction here with that idea.

      We will never agree on this. If you have real writing skills — which it seems to me that you do — why would you waste so much time and energy working for pennies writing SEO-friendly “content” when you could be paid more for work you could be more proud of?

      I’m not sure why you’re spending your time here on my personal blog. I like to think that it’s because I have some content you’d like to read, content that you find valuable in some way. I hope it’s not to continue a dialog about why it’s okay for a skilled, professional writer to manufacture text for a content mill. That would certainly be a waste of time.


  4. Hi Maria,

    My comments may run counter to your opinions, but consider another side of the debate. Webmasters and people with a message/mission often cannot express themselves very well with the written word. Content writers/ghostwriters exist for the benefit of these people who need services that traditional writers either find mundane or don’t understand.

    I would never refer to myself as a writer for the content mills, especially because I won’t write for “pennies” and I nurture and fertilize every article that I write. I write for article farms or content farms. As a traditional writer, you have the opportunity to “craft” or “electrify” your readers. You have the where-with-all to draw your reader into the article to experience the picture you have painted.

    Writing for the web is different. We are expected to avoid the adjectives and adverbs and present the facts … just the facts … in short (less than 500 words) sentences and short paragraphs. Our readers are accessing the information highway to find something specific with a short, concise explanation. Writers who write for article farms are providing a service and earning a living just like the traditional writer.

    Please try to understand that our writing jobs are not competing with your writing. The two are completely different and used for different reasons.

  5. Maria,

    I respect your views, and yes I do find your writing style engaging and effective, something we would like young writers who are steel weening their teeth to have a look at. That’s why I am relating to you.

    Contrary to popular belief, many of us who lead our group have had only passing relations with content mills and do not write for them.

    Our group is designed to attract newcomers who are at present working for content mills, and then once they are in, we show them better ways to work. We also show them how to use the mills more effectively to better themselves, and treat their work just as exercises.

    However, to do what we intend to do, we need writers who do not work for content mills and have experience in alternative avenues, as well as those who have done it for some time, so that the youngsters are not misled and do not continue the life of exploited proletariat.

    To do that effectively, we first have to instill into their minds that mill work is not bad or demeaning.

    If a young writer fee;s that way while being in a situation to work for mills, then he/she would lose confidence and may well spiral into depression. Forget about elevating to other ways ever.

    They come for help, and find it. We do not hate them, nor demean them, but understand that in the scammy world of internet business and work-from-home hypes, they have somehow got embroiled in situations hard to get out of.

    It was clear that you do not write for mills. That is why I invited you to join the group, so that sharing your experiences can benefit those who are in current predicaments of working for mills.

    Mill work does not make them less than who they are. There are many among us who earn ten times more than they used to while writing for mills, but recognize that it was good practice.

    I did not spend my time here to convince you to write for content mills, far from it. Make a search with my name on any freelance board or content mill, you’d never find me having bid for any work anywhere. But I do register myself to find out what traps they lay for the unsuspecting. Personally I do not work for content mills, but as a writer I feel for those who do, and we gather them together in one place, share their worries, and help them out.

    I do not know whether what my friends or I are doing is despicable, but I do know helping others gives meaning to my life.

    That’s why we run the group for Freelance Writers Working for Internet Content Mills.

    And again, if I am spending my time on your blog, which is valuable to me, I am doing that because of the great value I see in your person, and the help that your experiences could have brought to young writers.
    I am not convincing you to write for content mills, I was trying to convince you to join our group and help others by sharing your experiences and style.

    That’s all. That discretion is obviously yours, for the time of each person on Earth has the utmost value, and you decide what you do with your time.

    For me, I like to help writers who are down and out, than try to fan the egos of those who are already successful.


  6. Please change ‘steel’ to ‘still’ in the previous comment, that’s a typo that happened while writing fast.

What do you think?