How to make a company style guide work?
August 20, 2019 11:08 AM   Subscribe

My company has never had a style guide and wants one to standardize our communications. We are about 600 employees across six offices, several using Commonwealth English. We use Macs and PCs and Office products. We want offices who use Commonwealth English to retain their spellings and punctuation. We have a lot of people creating work that goes to clients and conferences.

In an ideal world, we would have a style guide based on an existing guide like AP or Chicago with tools that plugged into Office and online. It would also let us modify the existing guide to add rules of our own, like we'd prefer to use the serial comma where the AP rarely does. We'd also be able to add words for all users, like everyone would use LIBOR instead of Libor.

I've looked at AP Styleguard and Lingofy (expensive), and I'm waiting to see how Grammarly Premium works for us, but I feel like there must be other solutions to this that I haven't found yet. It's a hard Google for me.
posted by gladly to Writing & Language (10 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Internal or external (public, widespread) communications? Or both?

If external only, how many of those 600 would really be writing for outside consumption?

Does it have to be a technical solution, or could it be a process one (for example, all external comms go through a set of approved reviewers who edit for house style)?
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 11:52 AM on August 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

0. Nobody has a ready-made style guide or automatic app quite like what you precisely need.
- Get the folks in your documentation team to write one. It's not overly complicated. A one-to-two page document will do for the "guide" part, but mainly, the work will be about putting together a bunch of templates for presentations and documents of various types. MS Word has powerful templates which can do word-replacements like what you're talking about.
- Your docs team will fall to their knees and kiss your hem, because they have been waiting for this day.

1. Nobody will know that you have a style guide.
- Resign yourself to the fact that you WILL need to do some form of training: a company-wide presentation, a computer based training session, *something* that tells every. single. person. where the templates are, where the guides are, that they are expected to use these from now on
- Make the style guide part of your standard onboarding training/materials

2. Nobody will want to use your style guide.
- Concentrate on getting department leads on board, it will be their job to get their teams to use the style guide on a day to day basis
- Approach the rollout of the style guide like you would approach a marketing campaign or sales pitch: you need branding, ads, snazzy one-page info sheets and graphics to make it cool to use the style guide
- Your natural allies are found in Documentation, BD, and Marketing - leverage them well. Also hit up the C-suite folks who have the clout to get people to adopt it

3. Nobody will know where your style guide is.
- Bundle up your style guide, your templates for documents and presentations, and your snazzy one-pager info sheet and put it EVERYWHERE that employees go every day, e.g. your content management system, your company wiki, your shared servers, your GitHub page, your Kanban boards, etc etc etc
- Put a link to your style guide bundle in every email that goes out from the documentations department, the business development team, the sales & marketing teams, and so on. Make allies, and get them to add the style guide link to their email signatures.

4. Nobody will remember to use your style guide.
- Propose a company-wide "free" service offered by the documentations team to review people's presentations and documents to get them proofread and looking spiffy. Use this opening to apply the style guide.

- Be shameless and obnoxious about promoting the style guide. "Oh hey, Sarah, heard you have a presentation coming up! Hope you used one of our new templates and looked through the style guide!"

Speaking as a tech writer, that bit in bold is really your only viable solution to begin with, until you build up a culture around using the style guide using the other non-bolded bullet points.
posted by MiraK at 12:07 PM on August 20, 2019 [25 favorites]

In my experience, an org style guide will be 1-3 pages and include something like "if it's not addressed in here, follow AP style" or whatever. If you try to modify an entire comprehensive style guide that already exists, nobody will ever be able to find the handful of things where you differ from existing styles.

A style guide will never fix a bad writer, so think of it as the resource that an already-strong writer would need to reference in order to match your desired style and conventions, and go from there.
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:51 PM on August 20, 2019 [4 favorites]

The "if it's not in here" clause showbiz_liz mentions is crucial. It means you can set yourself the goal of having the internal style guide, the one you have to maintain, be as brief and lightweight as possible.

That internal style guide should cover things that the AP or Chicago people couldn't possibly have covered — industry-specific terms they haven't considered, or guidelines specific to the structure of your doc. It should override AP or Chicago or whoever occasionally, when it is absolutely necessary to do so. If you want AP but with a serial comma, think hard about why you want that, and about how much extra work and confusion it will create over the years for people who can no longer just look everything up in AP but need to remember to consult a second source. Generally it's not worth it, even if you are 100% convinced the serial comma is better.

As others are saying, odds are most people who generate text there won't care about the style guide, and can't possibly be made to care about it. If they wanted to be editors, or even professional writers, they already would be. Since they aren't, you'll need to hire editors who actually want to do that work and have the skills to do it.

Expect software tools to help with the spelling, styling, and capitalization of specific terms, and maybe with things like punctuation on a good day. Another place software can help is with the formatting of things like bibliographic references, if that's something you do. But overall, grammar-checking and style-checking software is not effective, and spending more money on it doesn't make it more effective. You need to pay a human editor, or a small team of them, if you want real consistency. (Following an existing style guide as much as possible will also make it easier to hire human editors.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:50 PM on August 20, 2019 [4 favorites]

It's possible have custom dictionaries in Word, but I'm not sure how that scales to the enterprise level.
posted by oceano at 2:22 PM on August 20, 2019

As an employee of an organisation with style guides and templates and more templates and more templates.....You have a number of obstacles here.

First, people recycle their presentations and communications. Taking their personal templates and applying your style guide will be painful. Even people who are not emotionally attached to the look and feel of their templates will resent spending a lot of time updating something that was fine to the house style.

And unless all that kind of work is done by some kind of administrative person there is an excellent chance that these things are prepared or finalised the day or even night before the presentation. So telling these people they will need to fit in a week for the documentation team to do the formatting is not going to happen. So if you plan to offer that work with users to ensure there is some kind of workflow that actually meets the needs of the business.

In addition, at least everywhere I’ve worked nobody is ever taught how to use ppt properly but everybody uses it. So giving people a template is great. Unfortunately they will try to transform content that was assembled from many sources and by many people and it will not be as simple as pasting into the template and applying that style. And people will be reluctant to fix all that to make the content work.

Our communications/branding folks recently came up with the genius idea to change some of the colour schemes in our ppt templates - we’re talking the tiniest changes, barely discernible unless you put them side by side. If there was a major new visual identity fair enough but there is no way I am taking my perfectly good presentation and spending time making that change - I have actual work to do that our clients are willing to pay for. The branding team will have to work harder than that to justify their existence.

Finally, some people are very attached to their styles and yours will be deemed inferior and they will simply refuse to apply yours.

So unless you can get the people approving communications to enforce the new style consistently you are wasting your time.
posted by koahiatamadl at 4:18 PM on August 20, 2019 [4 favorites]

The persons who have responded to you query have not answered your request for automated solutions other than AP Styleguard, etc.

I, too, would love to know whether such exist (and whether they work well).

However, the respondents—in not answering your question—have a point: It is difficult to imagine that any automated add-on to Microsoft Office would ever work in a firm of six hundred users. Such an add-on would be working against the promise of the application, which offers users a superabundance of choices. It may be technically feasible, perhaps, but it would, at best, provoke cognitive dissonance for the user.

I have been looking at this problem for decades. I think that the only way an automated solution could be successful would be in an enterprise with a single document-processing platform, like Adobe FrameMaker, which is built around enterprise styles. In FrameMaker, a user would have to go to a lot of trouble to create a document which does not automatically adhere to the firm’s style guide.

The persons who have responded to your query have given good advice. Advice, I suspect, which comes from considerable experience.

The only thing I can add, would be: Distribute the company style guide in Portable Document Format (PDF). The chief benefit is that the thing can be easily searched. Another benefit, is that it can be shared widely.

Good luck!
posted by burbridge at 7:00 PM on August 20, 2019

Agree that you have to go all in, with s proper internal comms campaign strategy and all the behavioural change techniques lined up (that us, making sure you are removing all obstacles so that ideally the path of least resistance is to use the new style guide).

Hard work, big project, definitely worth it.
posted by plonkee at 12:11 AM on August 21, 2019 [2 favorites]

I will tell you what we do at my company, which is around 15,000 employees. We've also looked into AP Styleguard and tried Lingofy, but they just weren't giving us quite what we needed. We're currently investigating Grammarly Premium.

We have two separate editing organizations: one for user documentation (technical) and the other for general biz comms (marketing). I work on the latter team, which is tiny by comparison and underfunded.

Our marketing copy editors maintain a style guide available to everyone in the company. Our baseline is AP style, with the company style guide listing exceptions to AP. The CE team sees most of the marketing pieces that go outside the company.

It sounds like you're looking for a tool that people can use to make comms more consistent, but you don't have the resources for a dedicated editor to enforce the rules. AP plus an internal webpage style guide is a good start. But everyone needs to have access to AP for that.

Our tech editing organization uses a highly customized version of Acrolinx. My team would never get the money for something like that. If your company won't pay for that, either, the next best thing is an internal style guide that includes the most common editing issues.

Good luck! I'll be following this to see if anybody's found a tool that's useful and cheap.
posted by Shoggoth at 12:33 PM on August 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

To provide a bit of closure, my company decided that we're not far enough along in our style guide creation process to purchase a tool/service. For the record, here are the companies we researched:

Acrolinx: Good god, it's everything you could want, but the price tag is stunning. Low six figures.
Grammarly Premium: It doesn't yet allow customization, and they were weird about having a phone call with our security team. Non-starter.
PerfectIt: Affordable but didn't work in enough applications to make sense for us.
ProWritingAid: This is the service I'll come back to when/if we decide to use a service. A third of the price of Acrolinx, fewer applications, but definitely workable.
posted by gladly at 11:43 AM on September 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

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