All About Web Style Guides

I was reading the well-reasoned article, Content Strategy for the Web Professional today and saw commentor David Mosher’s question about what writing a style guide entails and how to write one. I found myself writing an outrageously long comment and decided it was less annoying if I just posted this response on my blog and linked to it.

The short answer is, different people have different definitions for style guides. Here’s what I’ve seen:

Broad and Narrow Definitions

To some people, a style guide can mean a comprehensive listing of standards for your Web project, encompassing everything from structure to design to graphics to W3C standards to word choice (a la the Web Style Guide: Basic Design Principles for Creating Web Sites, by Patrick J. Lynch and Sarah Horton).

To others, the style guide means a document that is more content-specific and unique to your project, focusing on editorial style. For those of us with a word background, we would probably think to printed counterparts like the Chicago Manual of Style, the AP Stylebook and Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, to name a few. The style guide in this mold deals with spelling, punctuation, word choice and even SEO issues.

Writing a Style Guide

I’ll elaborate on the second definition, which I use because, in practice, I find it is easier to distinguish between a general design/development/content checklist and a project-specific, editorial-focused style guide.

A style guide is an internal resource that can also be shared with the client and any content collaborators. Its purpose is to foster consistency and effective communication, making editing easier on you and ultimately making your content easier for readers to understand.

What do you put in?

Your style guide entries should write certain things in stone, for example, the company name and trademarks. It can also include frequently used words that you always have to look up because of tricky hyphenation, or some other reason. No style guide is exhaustive, which is why you should specify a back-up source, such as the AP Stylebook and a specific dictionary.

The difference between print style guides and Web style guides is that the latter have to take into account the interactive nature of the medium, usability research and Web writing conventions. Links and lists are two specific areas where print and the Web differ greatly.

Often overlooked, one of the most important part of the style guide is guidelines (and examples!) of the project’s voice and messages. I love the idea of including a project-specific word bank (hat-tip Brain Traffic…see “5 Tips” link below).

Who writes it?

Writing a style guide should involve whoever is making decisions about content for a given project, including content strategists, copywriters, editors, proofreaders and the client.


Here are some real-life entries from a university style guide I update:

  • course work Two words. (Merriam-Webster)
  • curriculum vitae Plural is curricula vitae. (Merriam-Webster)
  • GPA Uppercase without periods, and use only initials in all references. Include the hundredths place.
  • URLs URLs should not stand alone, but be linked from copy by words that relate to the link subject. Do not link from “click here.”

This style guide also contains a long section dedicated to lexical style, with discussion and examples of the university voice and messaging.

A related document I work off of is a site redesign checklist. It specifies 128 actions dealing with content, design and development that must be completed before, during and after launch, under the following categories:

  • Introductory Process
  • Pre-usability Testing
  • Initial Content Review
  • Technical Audit and Development Site
  • Design
  • Structure and Navigation
  • Content Migration
  • Photography, Images and Multimedia
  • Site Review, Testing and Finalizing

Revising and Using a Style Guide

In my opinion, a style guide should be open to revision as the project evolves. The style guide revision process doesn’t have to be overly formal, but it’s essential to:

  1. Keep track of your style questions.
  2. Discuss them with your content colleagues.
  3. Come to a consensus (whether the result is black-and-white rule or just a guideline).
  4. Keep your style guide up-to-date.

Elizabeth Saloka wrote the helpful 5 Tips for Working with a Style Guide. She warns against deviating from your style guide mid-project, and I agree: consider where you in the publication process and whether you can implement the change now or whether you should hold off until the next content roll-out.


Provocatively, Jeffrey MacIntyre recently proposed a radical “reboot” of the style guide, framing it as a “living, breathing process document.” In his presentation on the elements of editorial strategy (see slide 24), he proposed the style guide take on a more “show bible” aspect (referring to the world of TV production), and that it be a training document, with publishing walkthroughs for each content module.

I tend to think that this documentation is vital for any Web site with regular publication of new content, but that perhaps it’s outside the province of the style guide. However, if it isn’t included in style guides, is there a good chance the publication process part gets overlooked?

To all others who have written or worked with style guides, do you think the style guide is the place for publication processes? How much do you see the style guide as set in stone vs. living and breathing? And what other questions or issues have come up in working with a Web style guide?

He who speaks the truth about websites

Recently, I saw a fantastic presentation by Paul Boag, “10 Harsh Truths about Institutional Websites.” Vimeo link

It’s about an hour long and I encourage you to watch the whole thing if you work on the website for a university or school or even a corporation (there are similar communication pitfalls at all types of large organizations, after all…speaking of which, Paul has previously written about 10 Harsh Truths About Corporate Websites). I can’t stress how clear and helpful this presentation is. As a teaser, here are the headlines of each topic, but you must watch it for an explanation and more importantly, a solution:

10. A CMS is not a silver bullet.
9. Social media is hard.
8. Users don’t care about organizational structure.
7. If you try to appeal to everybody, you appeal to nobody.
6. Your site is bloated and out of date.
5. Too many techies and marketeers!
4. Great content needs central control.
3. A lack of direction/focus
2. Course finders suck.
1. Politics are killing your site.

Right now, I’m particularly interested in #9 and the topic of social media for higher ed, as we are actively planning for long-term social media strategy. More on what I’ve learned about that soon. (And as for #5, I happen to work for a university and wouldn’t characterize any of my colleagues as clueless techies and marketeers. They are the saintly opposite; they get it.)

Friday content strategy: installment 3

Caution: reading the following may make you passionate about content strategy and knowledgeable about recent content news.

  1. Are You Sure Your Content Marketing Strategy Is a Good Fit? by Sonia Simone
  2. Transcribing the spoken word, by Richard Ingram
  3. The four kinds of non-catastrophic breaking news, and why social media aren’t changing them, by Michael Andersen
  4. The True Shortcut to Valuable Content, by Shelly Bowen
  5. The Fallacy Of The Link Economy, by Arnon Mishkin
  6. Design and Content in Customer Service Excellence, by Colleen Jones
  7. How to create metaphors that enhance user experience, by Gabriel Smy
  8. The Case for Content Strategy—Motown Style, by Margot Bloomstein
  9. 10 things every business person should know about content strategy, slideshare by Melissa Rach
  10. The Next Big Headache for Digital Publishers, by Jeff MacIntyre
  11. How to Develop a Content Strategy for Your Professional Blog, by Celine Rogue
  12. B-to-b marketers connect with social media, by Rob Crumpler
  13. For content problems, technology is not the thing, by Kristina Halvorson
  14. No Chief Web Officer Required, by Lisa Welchman
  15. Social Tagging – Questions Answered on Correction Tools and Vendors, by Stephanie Lemieux
  16. Why PDFs are Bad for the Web and How to Make Them Better, by Rick Allen
  17. They’ll help them find you: [content strategy in the public search arena], by Richard Ingram
  18. 6 Reasons You Need Content Strategy, by Erin Scime
  19. Back-end designs and the CMS cycle of disillusionment, by Adriaan Bloem
  20. PDF: Story Listening through Social Media, by Story Worldwide

If you’re talking about #contentstrategy on Twitter, you can find me @julieespinosa.

Clay Shirky on the New Media Landscape

I took a couple of notes from Clay Shirky’s TED presentation on how social media can make history (thanks for sending it to me, AbsolutEvan). I embedded the video here and encourage you to watch it:

In a world where media is global, social, ubiquitous and cheap, in a world of media where the former audience are now increasingly full participants, in that world, media is less and less often about crafting a single message to be consumed by individuals and is more and more often a way of creating an environment for convening and supporting groups. The question we all face now is how can we make best use of medium, even though it means changing the way we’ve always done it.

1) If you want to have a conversation in this world [The traditional media landscape we had in the 20th century] with one other person, if you want to address a group, you get the same message and you give it to everybody. Now, many can talk to many. The Internet is the first medium in history that has native support for groups

2) Media is increasingly less just a source of information and increasingly more a site of coordination, because groups that see or hear or watch or listen to something can now gather around and talk to each other as well.

3) Members of the former audience can now also be producers and not just consumers.

It’s not just a question of the Internet or no Internet, as the Internet becomes more social.

That’s not all: the last time China had an earthquake of this magnitude, it took them three months to admit that it had happened. Now they might have liked to have done that here, rather than see these pictures [of the Sichuan quake], but they weren’t given that choice because their own citizens beat them to the punch.

The media was produced locally, produced by amateurs, it was produced quickly and it was produced at such an incredible abundance that there was no way to filter it as it appeared. So now, the Chinese government, who for a dozen years has quite successfully filtered the Web, is now in the position of having to decide whether to allow or shut down entire services, because the transformation to amateur media is so enormous that they can’t deal with it any other way.

[The audience] is no longer disconnected from each other.

15 More Recent Content Strategy Articles

I keep finding great posts on content strategy, so again, I’m compiling a list of some of those articles from recent weeks. They deal with the strategy (and tactics) of content strategy and other tangentially related Web stuff, and are organized more or less chronologically. Great ideas here (and this time I wasn’t so lazy this time to post the raw URLs).

I got most of these posts from recommendations from CS people I follow on Twitter, so thanks. Happy Friday all!

  1. The Content Wrangler: Understanding the Value of Modular Content Reuse by Examining User-Generated Music Mashups
  2. NYTimes blog By Design (Allison Arieff): Designs on Policy
  3. Domenic Venuto: Semantic Magic—Infusing Web Content With Meaning
  4. Podcast on Content Strategy: Interview with Rahel Bailie
  5. Richard Ingram: Collaborating with a Content Strategist Infographic
  6. Richard Ingram: This calls for a strategy
  7. Robert Stribley: Blinded by Content Bliss
  8. Colleen Jones: Content Analysis: A Practical Approach
  9. Christopher Detzi: The Content Conundrum-Bridging the gap between design and content
  10. Angie King: Speed-dating your source content in 4 easy steps
  11. Rian Van Der Merwe: Measuring your content with user data
  12. Dawn Bovasso: I Want my Tweets Back
  13. Zachary M. Seward: Measuring reader engagement by how often they copy and paste
  14. Christian Crumlish: The Information Architecture of Social Experience Design: Five Principles, Five Anti-Patterns and 96 Patterns (in Three Buckets)
  15. Alex Iskold: The Future of Search: Social Relevancy Rank

The Problem of Medical Miscommunication

Medical translation and interpretation is a context where the words you choose can literally mean life or death for someone. As we consider legislation to change the U.S. health care system, I’m concerned with orienting our decisions toward the increasingly multilingual patient base. How will it be provided? How will it be guaranteed? Who is qualified to interpret? Who will pay for it? As someone who has worked as a medical interpreter, I can vouch for the fact that its availability  and quality is not consistent across different health care settings.

There was a super sobering NPR story on the growing problem and how it figures into the larger health care debate:

“Every day there are thousands of patients whose English is not very good who have a faltering ability to talk to their doctor or nurse,” says Leighton Ku, who teaches health policy at George Washington University.

Ku says most insurance companies do not pay for medical interpreters, so many health care providers don’t have them.

“There’s no serious monitoring or enforcement of the law,” he says. “Clearly it’s the nature of the health care system that health care providers work in response to payment.”

This often leaves family members or friends to interpret, and Ku says that leads to confusion and medical error. Doctors order unnecessary tests, wasting money. Children can be scarred when they have to interpret things like a parent’s cancer diagnosis or a consent form for surgery. And then there is the list of horror stories…

I’ll let you continue reading/hearing those. (Yikes.) I highly recommend reading/hearing it in its entirety.

To begin with, translating English to English is usually a necessity, because medical jargon is not always understandable to the normal patient. From an NPR story on transitional care:

“Mr. and Mrs. Rogers, I would consider very smart and savvy people — and assertive,” says [transitional care nurse Jessica] MacLeod. “And even having those skills, health care is complex, and we have a health care system that is increasingly complicated. And, you know, if you’ve ever been to the doctor’s office yourself, you are hearing words for the first time and they’re maybe said once and it’s hard to get a word in edgewise sometimes and say, ‘Wait, what is atrial fibrillation, Doc?’ You know, what does that mean? So part of my job is a translator, really, and I translate the language of health care to a layperson’s language.

Imagine if you you weren’t as savvy or assertive or didn’t speak English fluently. How much more difficult would it be for you to understand health care instructions? I could go on and on, but the bottom line is, nowhere does language and policy mean more than when people’s lives are on the line.

What are your thoughts on language issues in health care? What policies do you think are good to foster better communication and better health outcomes? Are there any implicit assumptions I have about language that you take issue with?

Most perfect commercial: Delta faucet “hands” spot

I saw this commercial for a Delta faucet that turns on by touching (no knob-turning required) and I think it is probably the most brilliant commercial ever. Here’s why:

  1. A super-usable feature was invented by their design team.
  2. The ad team decided to actually focus on the feature itself, not just unrelated sexiness.
  3. The visuals of hands messied by different are vibrantly colored and full of texture (very memorable).
  4. There’s a relevant and catchy song (thanks to the Sesame Street count!)

It certainly made me (world’s messiest person in the kitchen) want that faucet.

So, if you want a memorable commercial, design a good product, center the ad campaign around the product benefits and show it off in a beautiful, visual way.