Focusing on Readers & Writers Managing Style

Style Standards for Technical Writing

I’m back (after an extreme hiatus from blogging). Because I’m teaching a new graduate course on style for technical writers, I thought I’d share some of the content I’ve been developing here. If you’d rather watch/listen than read, here’s my 19-minute lecture.

Should professional technical communicators still care about writing style?

Despite the fact that technical communicators do far more than write, there’s evidence that writing skill remains a critical competency. That includes the ability to alter style by manipulating language at the word- and sentence-level. In fact, there’s some evidence that the blending of marcomm (marketing communications) and techcomm (technical communication) within many organizations makes this skill more important than ever. See the results of Lanier’s survey of STC members from a few years ago.

Results from Lanier, Clinton R. (2018). Toward Understanding Important Workplace Issues for Technical Communicators. Technical Communication, 65(1), 66-84.

What is the standard for effective writing style for technical content?

I ask my students to review three sources at the beginning of the course to get them thinking about the answer to this question.

First, I have them watch parts 1 through 3 of the video, UX Foundations: Style Guides and Design Systems, from LinkedIn Learning. Many of our students want to work in UX (user experience) after graduation and most will work with UX professionals. That makes it important to understand what UX has to say about style and standards.

Second, I ask them to read Voice, tone and style: The whys, wheres and hows  by Lauren Pope. Lauren’s a content strategy professional. What students find out is that she talks about style and standards differently from UX pros.

Third, I tell them to study the Mailchimp Content Style Guide. This guide/standard is often held up as an exemplar in the world of web content and UX writing because of its success in establishing a clear brand. They published the 1st version on GitHub in 2015 to make it available to others under a Creative Commons license. Many web content developers have adapted it for their own use.

After reviewing these sources, students should reach several conclusions about the standard for effective writing style for technical content:

  • The terms “style” and “style guide” mean something different to different groups of people.
  • Writing standards are created by people who create and distribute content. They are not handed down from the gods.
  • Organizations create standards to consistently influence the way its employees portray it and the way it is ultimately perceived by the audiences of their communications.
  • There is no single, correct standard for anything related to writing style.

There is no single, correct standard for anything related to writing style.

Let me say a little more about that last point. Here’s an example I share with students.

Standard Chicago Manual of StyleMicrosoft Writing Style Guide
AcronymsA number of expressions are almost always abbreviated, even in regular prose, and may be used without first spelling them out. Many of these will be listed . . . in the latest edition of Webster’s . . .Some acronyms, like USB, FAQ, and URL, are more well known than the spelled-out term. Don’t spell out the term if the acronym is listed in The American Heritage Dictionary . . .
QuotesChapter 13: Quotations and Dialogue with 8 subheadings83 words about pull quotes only
ChatbotsNo contentSection: Chatbots and Virtual agents with 4 subheadings
Demonstrating the lack of a single set of standards for all content

These examples show how standards differ. First, both Chicago Manual of Style (CMoS) and Microsoft Writing Style Guide (MWSG) allow authors to use well-known acronyms (or other abbreviations) without spelling them out the 1st time in certain cases where the acronym is considered equivalent to a word. But CMoS refers to Webster’s dictionary and MWSG refers to American Heritage to determine which acronyms are in their list.

In another comparison, CMoS includes an entire chapter on the use of quotations and dialogue, whereas MWSG includes just a few words about the use of pull quotes–the stylized text used as a type of visual to pull readers into the content. On the other hand, MWSG includes an entire section on standards for chatbots, while a search of CMoS finds no relevant content. 

Content creators must first know which guide applies to the material they’re creating. If you’re working on fiction, CMoS will include essential standards for your edits. If you’re working on a chatbot, however, it will be mostly worthless because it doesn’t address the standards relevant to your material.

There is also a lot to say about defining style vs. voice vs. tone. That’s coming soon. I look forward to sharing what comes next in our quest to master writing style for technical content over the coming weeks!

References to learn more

Here are the references I offer students in this first module of the course, many of which are mentioned in my lecture.

2 comments

  1. Dr. Kim,
    I live in the world of analytics and big data. I’m not sure exactly what “style” means to technical writing pros, but the way we explain analytics methods and results has to be adapted to the receiver and the communication goals/decision situation. Is the appropriateness of a style evaluated in terms of its effectiveness in accomplishing the goals of the person who initiates the communication?
    Does communication theory (sender–>message–>receiver, etc.) focus on content? Maybe it should include style? Maybe it already does? Is style dependent on the nature of the content and the goals of communication?
    Dr. Jim

    1. Dr. Jim,
      I spared blog readers but subjected my students to a few minutes about the ways people have talked about writing style through history, starting with Aristotle whose rhetorical triangle (writerreadercontent) was meant to describe/prescribe how these aspects of context always define an effective message.

      Dr. Kim

      P.S. Thanks for reading but even more for commenting. I’m glad to hear from you! And sorry it’s been so long. Now that I’m not a department chair, I have loads more time to think about interesting stuff. Would love to hear what you’re working on now …

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