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Writing Style Guides and Your Parenting Style

by Tom Johnson on Aug 11, 2009
categories: technical-writing

A lot of departments think that a team needs a style guide and a unified approach, if you want the audience to experience a consistent, professional branded experience. I used to think the same. In fact, just last week, we started discussing whether to use greater than symbols (>) or pipes (|) or nothing at all to indicate menu hierarchy and subtabs. I admit that a team needs to be on the same general page. And in a lot of situations, providing writers with a style guide helps them with a basic grounding that they need to be productive.

And yet, it's been nearly two years now at my job, and we still don't have an official team style guide beyond the Microsoft Manual of Style or Chicago. Somehow, not having a style guide has not been a detriment. Not having a style guide gives us certain liberties -- liberties to adapt to the situation and use our best judgment, to experiment with new approaches and techniques, and to choose the language and style that best fits the specific project, situation, and audience. Best of all, we never feel cramped by what inevitably seem to be limiting policies and strictures.

This insight into a more open style also has some applications into parenting. This summer, we've had two friends and their children stay with us. There's nothing like a guest with children at your house to see how different your own parenting style is. Discrepancies abound in almost everything, from when you put the kids down, to the routine you use at night, the number of baths you give your kids a week, their TV watching permissions, disciplinary techniques such as time out, what you force your kids to eat at the table, whether you spank your children, whether you use diversion instead of directness, whether you play with your children, whether they must clean up after dinner, whether you send your kids to public school, private school, or home school, and so on.

Although almost none of us has had training as a parent, we're all pretty set in the correctness of our parenting methods. However we've come to embrace our style, we carry it out with rigidity and an unwavering sense of right.

It's easy to look at other parenting styles and be critical, to point out flaws, or gossip about how backwards or crazy some decisions are. Instead, though, after our summer of guests, I've learned that each parent adopts the style he or she prefers and is almost destined to embrace, just as each writer adopts the style he or she prefers and is destined to embrace.

Sure, you could force writers to conform to a specific set of style standards with rigid requirements (e.g., never use pipes, always hyphenate e-mail, avoid the word "may" or "will," never have more than 10 steps in a list, always format subheadings in 14px bold #333), but the effect may be just as stifling as requiring parents to conform to a specific style of parenting not their own (e.g., put your kids down at 7p.m., make them eat vegetables before dessert, avoid prolonged exposure outdoors, lock their bedroom doors at night, never tolerate impolite behavior, always braid their hair on Sundays).

Rather than criticize parenting styles different from my own, or writer's styles different from my own, I am embracing a more open, relative philosophy (to some extent). In many cases, people adopt the style that matches their strengths, that fits in with a thousand impressions and influences that have shaped their perceptions, and which they feel most comfortable with. If you force people to go against their natural style, the result is often disastrous. We are most natural and productive using the style that fits us.

And yet, I'm not advocating extremism here. Two parents living in the same household have to be on the same general page in order to function as a team. One parent can't adopt a disciplinary technique of spanking while the other parent doesn't discipline at all. Just as one writer can't start writing documentation in haikus while the other writes in novelesque form.

But the idea that a team has to be so uniform in their consistency down to an extremely granular level, such that they limit themselves from any experimentation, personal style, or best-judgment-for-the-situation decisions, is not a productive mindset. Customers don't really care, and in the end, the breathing room writers feel will have tremendous payoff in their dedication and contributions to the team.

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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