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Revolutionising the Editorial Style Guide – Findings from Web Publishers’ September

At September’s Web Publishers, we did a group card sort as part of our project overhauling the Editorial Style Guide.

We had some workshop time at last month’s Web Publishers, and I used it to establish some basic information about how people engage with the Editorial Style Guide.

Who uses the Style Guide?

I started off with a quick survey amongst the people in the room:

  • Do you know what the style guide is for? Cheeringly, most of the room put their hands up here.
  • Have you ever used it? Perhaps one or two fewer, but we were still doing ok for hands at this point
  • Have you referred to it more than once? Definitely a drop off here – down to maybe half the room
  • Do you use it all the time? A handful of hands went up here (more than I, in my cynicism, had expected, to be fair), but not many.
  • Have you ever disagreed with something in it? Back up to at least half the room. Oh dear.

And, of course, these are the people who turn up for web publishers’ sessions. I suspect the proportion of people who are engaged with the Style Guide in the wider web publishing community is even lower.

But it’s really good!

I stood up in front of the 35 people in the room and made an empassioned plea. The Style Guide is a valuable resource for editors and for our users! How sad that it’s not a day-to-day tool for everyone! We should all have read it and understand we never overuse exclamation marks like this! And never ever in a million years use hyperbole!

The thing is, good is only good if it’s used, and people will only use something if it’s usable. It’s an important part of what we preach about usability in general:

If it’s not usable, it’s not useful.

It doesn’t matter how good something is in theory; people need to be able to use it.

In fact, people seem (anecdotally) to fall into one of two categories when it comes to the Style Guide:

  • “I looked at in training, but don’t think about it any more.”
  • “I don’t refer to it a lot because I read it once and now I know it.”

In a sense, these two attitudes are equally dangerous. I have been intimately involved with the style guide over the last ten years, making occasional changes and teaching hundreds of editors about its importance. But I still don’t know it all. And a good style guide, like any process, should evolve and change.

Our challenge at this point is that it doesn’t evolve much, and when it does, we don’t tell people.

Usable, evidenced, realistic

We’re kicking off a joint project with Communications and Marketing that aims revolutionise the style guide, looking at things like:

Making it navigable

Currently, it’s a PDF, which made half of September’s session visibly shudder – with good reason. There are lots of other organisations doing great things with the way they present their style guides:




University of Dundee

Providing evidence

‘Because we say so’ doesn’t really cut it in today’s world, where people want clear evidence for an approach (particularly at a university). There’s a brilliant project being run by Content Design London aiming to create a universal set of Readability Guidelines, which we’re keeping a close eye on. You might have seen Lauren Tormey present on this earlier in the year.

Imagine a collaboratively developed, universal content style guide, based on usability evidence. With guidelines for creating easy to comprehend content, we can design inclusively by default.

Sarah Richards, Content Design London

Readability guidelines wiki

Examining different contexts

At the moment, we have a print style guide and a web style guide, which is an outdated approach. We need to look at how style and tone differ between brochures, recruitment websites, blogs, social media, and so on – not just print versus web.

For example, do you notice I just said ‘and so on’ and not ‘etc’, and ‘for example’ not ‘eg’? That’s in the Style Guide. But should the Style Guide apply to a blog? My tone is certainly chattier here than the official team website. We need to define exactly how and why that’s ok.

Card sort

At the Web Publishers, we started off my looking at some of the entries in the Style Guide and examining how people might look for them, using a hybrid card sort.


There are 223 entries in the Style Guide, which is too many to be sorted in 20 minutes, so I’d pre-sorted them into 38 broad categories. Three groups, each with around 8 people, sorted these into their own categories, with two predefined categories they could choose to use (or not use):

  • “I would never look this up in the Style Guide”
  • “I would always search for this alphabetically”

For example, if someone wanted to know whether ‘cooperate’ should be spelt with a hyphen, would they search under:

  • punctuation,
  • grammar, or
  • ‘C’?

Or would they just make a decision, or search online as to the universally correct term?

(I chose this because in the style guide, the answer is no, it shouldn’t use a hyphen. I’m not alone in hating that approach, and it seems unusual in the UK. But ‘I don’t like it’ is no better than ‘we say so’. We need to look at the accessibility issues, and what approach is best for the widest range of people.)

What we found

I’ll hold my hands up to a couple of rookie mistakes in the way that I precategorised the entries.

Two of the categories I’d predefined were ‘How do I use Latin abbreviations?’ and ‘How do I use Latin words? All of the groups put these in the same category. This was my fault, because I’d made the labels too similar.

Looking at the detail, I’m not sure that people really would look up whether to use ‘i.e.’ in the same place as ‘per annum’, or either in the same place as ‘fora’. [To save you looking it up: don’t use any of those terms.]

The same issue applied to a few of the categories, and the conclusion is that we do need to separate a lot of the individual categories back out again – perhaps using some version of the Delphi method, which reduces the load of the task on members of the community. (User research is another thing that’s only useful if it’s usable. If we create tasks that are too time-consuming, no-one will do them.)

The Delphi Method – Medium post

That doesn’t mean the activity wasn’t useful, however. It still threw up some interesting groupings that I hadn’t considered before and, best of all, got people talking and thinking about the style guide and how they interact with it.

It led to many interesting discussions, and two working assumptions we can move forward with.

Everything needs to be:

  • searchable using a simple search box
  • cross-tagged so it can be found using multiple methods

I’m meeting with Communications and Marketing very soon to talk about how we can move forward with this in a holistic way, and I’ll be posting more updates here.

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