Publication guidelines are better than a style guideJuly 8, 2008
A style guide is vital for writers and editors when producing publications and other writing projects. Style guides serve as documentation, created by the editors, that helps guide editors and others who edit, design, write for or otherwise contribute to the publication.
Sometimes, though, a style guide alone can’t do enough.
What is a style guide?
Many writers and editors swear by a style guide when organizing, editing and writing their publications. Well-known style guides include the Chicago Manual, the AP Stylebook and the Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications. Many corporations adapt elements of these to produce their own, distinctive style guides.
But an editor must ask herself: Does a style guide do everything you need as you plan, create and manage a publication or online help documentation project?
What are publication guidelines—and how do they differ from a style guide?
The term “publication guidelines” often describes submission guidelines for contributors to a magazine or technical journal.
I use the term in a wider sense: Publication guidelines cover any topic related to the publication—including topics that don’t fit in a style guide.
In short, they provide a comprehensive guide, plan and reference source for a publication or set of publications. They work as technical documentation for editors and, to a lesser extent, writers.
Often editors create a style guide to determine content and format in publications. A style guide can and should be part of publication guidelines, since a style guide is a set of stylistic guidelines for a publication.
Publication guidelines, on the other hand, can be a bigger, wider-ranging document.
What you include in these can vary widely. The publication guidelines published by Virginia Highlands Community College and Delaware Valley College include topics like planning publications, logo requirements for the organization’s identity, and web design and development guidelines, among others. VHCC’s equal opportunity employment and accessibility statements give notice that the college complies with federal law in those areas.
The Journal of Applied Communications, for members of the Association for Communication Excellence (ACE), publishes guidelines for contributors. These are fairly typical of publications that seek technical or scientific manuscripts from writers, in that they include formatting guidelines, organization requirements (such as an abstract) and the publication agreement.
The journal Molecular and Cellular Proteomics offers highly detailed technical guidelines to help researchers publish research manuscripts.
Just for fun: Want to get your paper rejected by the Association for Computing Machinery’s Special Interest Group on Graphics and Interactive Techniques? They offer tips on that as well astheir guidelines! Funny, but useful for the writers.
Why write publication guidelines?
Publication guidelines can save time, money and hassles for writers and editors over the long term. They can help future contributors and others taking over, or updating a publication–especially if the new writers don’t have expertise in help authoring, publication management or other editorial tasks.
They are especially helpful when contractors know they are going to pass along a project to an in-house documentation team—or, probably a worse situation, to the developers. They are invaluable to contributors if the project must be turned over before it’s finished.
They save money over the long run because editors and writers don’t have to reinvent the wheel and spend extra time duplicating research.
Ideally, these guidelines should cover many types of publications. Usually only minor elements, especially those related to software-specific issue, would need much change from one type of publication to another.
Types of documentation that can benefit from publication guidelines:
- employee publications like newsletters
- online product help guides and manuals
- websites, including intranets
- marketing publications like emailed postcards
- any other publications created by an organization
How can publication guidelines help?
I developed publication guidelines for NuStep in order to provide a framework to help future contributors and administrators of an online training and reference project after my assignment there ends.
These guidelines can help those not familiar with the project, and who may also be novices with help authoring tools.
The staff that took over this project have varying levels of writing and editing expertise, including some technical writing. But none had expertise with modern help authoring tools. Also their skill level with managing publications is unknown.
The guidelines also contain general instructions on procedures related to using, in my case, Doc-To-Help, the software—called a help authoring tool, used to build the guide.
Elements of publication guidelines
What should publication guidelines include?
Publication guidelines contain much more information than what fits within the parameters of a style guide. They should include a style guide (or several, as needed), but also should carry any information that can help writers and editors manage any kind of publication.
Publication guidelines may include:
- Style and usage guides
- Planning and organization guides
- Help with the software and related procedures that are not well documented in the software help files
- Help for software-related procedures like backing up the project
- Mechanical issues like formatting required in MS Word or HTML source documents
- Notes on templates and other mechanical essentials
- Lists of reference sources like dictionaries, encyclopedias, technical websites, etc.
- Documentation of project contributor names, their contributions and related information
- Documentation of any and all project help resources, including emails from support as well as resources found in books and on websites.
- Documentation of project file locations, if not obvious from the project software
- Other pertinent information like the EEOC, accessibility and corporate ID requirements noted above
How will you know what to include? Simply ask the question: What do I need to know to manage, edit and develop the publication. Then include as much information as you believe any contributor needs to do a good job with their contributions.
Publication guidelines can be streamlined, or as comprehensive as a budget, time, attention and energy allow. It may be best to err on the side of too much information; less is more, for experienced editors and designers.
What you include should depend on a good estimate of the skills and abilities of the team that will take over a project.
How do I start a publication guidelines project?
For a good start on planning and organizing publication guidelines, write a short, clear mission statement and list of specific goals. Put them at the beginning of the guidelines.
Next, develop a tight outline based on those goals. Refine this outline as needed; it will form the skeleton of your publication guidelines. A good outline will guide your project.
Little else is needed except to prioritize and execute each element of the outline.
Click here to see a sample mission statement, goals and outline for publication guidelines.
The bottom line
Writers and editors need guidelines to plan and develop projects and publications of all kinds.
A style guide is helpful, but comprehensive publication guidelines—documentation of the documentation—are immensely more helpful, and save money and headaches in the long run.
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