Tag Archives: web

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.)

Content strategy road map


Getting from here to there

So I was reading educational advice over at Brain Traffic from content strategists responding to a query from a student wanting to work in content strategy. And my comment kept getting longer and longer until it dawned on me I needed to just write a blog post and link to it.

My philosophy is that content strategy is a transdisciplinary field (see the variety of people practicing it who used to be marketers or information architects, journalists or library scientists). As a novice to content strategy who already has a degree and experience in writing, my personal development plan has a stronger bent toward practice than formal schooling. More working on sites than talking pontificating about the Web (fun as that is). Here’s my current approach to learning more about and practicing content strategy:

  1. I’m cobbling together my own training regimen, including reading relevant SlideShares, blogs and articles/books on content strategy, UX and IA, and completing CSS/Photoshop tutorials through Lynda.com. End result: I balance out my overdeveloped writing background with more software/Web savvy, i.e. the technical nuts and bolts)
  2. Since I happen to work for an insitution of higher ed, I am taking classes in the only program grad-level program I find relevant (a post-bacc certificate in multimedia writing and technical communication). I get to take classes online in visual communication and technical comms, respectively. Watch this space for my portfolio, which I actually get class credit to do! In the future I will consider more comprehensive programs, like those listed by Karen McGrane, of Bond Art Science. End result: Some reflective discussions, papers and eventual piece of paper.
  3. I’m carving out content strategy-type chunks for web site redesign and creation at work and getting involved in more aspects than I normally would. Job description is mostly editing at end of process. In practice there’s other gaps that can be massaged to attack content more thoroughly and strategically: doing content inventory with clients, navigation development, usability testing. End result: more hands-on learning in a collaborative workplace with actors from different disciplines.
  4. I’m getting a sense of the types of job descriptions and sectors where content strategists work by reading through their About Me pages, LinkedIn bios and current company’s sites. When people have enumerated their positions, responsibilities and accomplishments, I view them as potential road maps. Like, “here’s a template I can work off of; let me see what opportunities I can find to get me from here to there.” Rahel Bailie lists her last few positions, none of which were called “content strategist.”

I’ve taken the advice to joing the Google group and the mailing list mentioned by Jeffrey MacIntyre and Kristina Halvorson. And I guess I can add blogging to this list. It’s a way to hash out ideas and connect with other like-minded people

So what are people’s thoughts on formal education versus on-the-job training as it applies to content strategy? Comment here if you like or back at the original post.

Whither Web Writing?

keysI worked as a print reporter at three publications during and immediately after my undergrad education, and I loved it. But for me, language has always had an appeal beyond just beat reporting. For this reason, I think I’m attracted to content strategy and Web writing.

As a journalism student, I was never very receptive to the arguments to join the dark side, PR, just because it was journalism’s better paid cousin. Nowadays, though, there’s a hybrid field that is neither journalism nor public relations, but that still depends on the same skill set. David Meerman Scott has issued a convincing call to journalists to consider what he calls “brand journalism.” David writes:

People in companies now realize web marketing success comes from creating content-rich web sites, videos, podcasts, photos, charts, ebooks, white papers and other valuable content.

However, many of the companies I speak with are trying to figure out who will create the content that they need for their online initiatives. Marketers, executives, and entrepreneurs say things like: “David, I need help. If I knew how to create great content, I’d already be doing it.”

…if you realize that your skills are in demand right now, you’ve got a new and fascinating opportunity.

At the same time another article I read, swung me back in favor of journalism, though not of the traditional I-broadcast-you-listen model. The article, by Poynter educator Mindy McAdams, explores the future of journalism as curation: selecting, culling, contextualizing, filtering, arranging, organizing, and yes, curating information.

Still, though, I’m holding true to my recent epiphany about my content strategy calling, which I see as encompassing the skills and challenges of journalsm, brand content, all on the dynamic platform of the Web. On that note, I’ve been following the aftermath of the Content Strategy Consortium at the IA Summit 2009, that is to say, wrap-ups and insights courtesy of blogging content strategists such as Keri Maijala of Delicious Words and Shelly Bowen. Also, many of the consortium presentation slides are up here and here.

In short, this is a promising time to be a writer/journalist/content strategist, if you’re curious, love to learn and explore new avenues for your skills. So says this optimist.

Learning to love Vimeo

(Update: still can’t get Vimeo to embed here on WordPress. So if you have any hints for that, that’d be great and make me love them that much more.)

Obama calling for Renew America Together

People around me had been making references to how superior Vimeo was to YouTube so I decided to check it out for myself. Granted, I’m coming at it from a purely viewer perspective because I’ve yet to upload, let alone shoot any video of my own.

My thoughts: Vimeo seems to have on the whole higher definition, more artistic videos. This I like. The site design is also very sleek. The URLs themselves are shorter and simpler. Even the sign-up process was simple, seemingly identical to Mint.com’s. I hear embedding is somehow better too, so I’m testing that out now.

One definite distinguishing characteristic of Vimeo is the social aspect. There are forums and profiles that are much more intuitive than on YouTube. You can set up a friendly URL for your profile

For me, the best feature of Vimeo is having an RSS of the videos I tag as “my likes,” the equivalent of YouTube’s “favorites.” I have yet to figure out how to link to or make a feed from my (168 and counting) YouTube favorites. Any ideas? This happens to be a major way that I interact with video sites. Maybe it’s unusual, but it’s a functionality that matters a lot to me.

So here’s a wonderful little video on a Japanese vacation I found there thanks to notcot.org. Reminded me of the Japan shots from Baraka, one of my favorite films. And the series of concerts a emporter from blogotheque que “j’aime depuis longtemps,” to rework the title of a recent French feature-length film.

In other news, attended my first tweetup this Friday and meet some cool peeps through Phoenix Friday Nights. Hope to do that again soon!