The Importance of Style Guides

Regardless of the type of medical information being generated and how it is published, having a clear message, consistent wording and formatting, and error-free content is essential. As discussed in a previous post, medical editors help writers meet these requirements for our clients. One way the editors help writers provide consistent wording and formatting in client documents is through use of and adherence to an in-house style guide.

Having and following an established style is good for readers, writers, and the company. In his article “Save Money With a Corporate Style Guide,” Allen summarizes the benefits of using a style guide: “Corporate style guides can improve document quality by: creating consistency within and among documents; promoting a professional image; training new employees, and defining document generation.”

Adherence to style guides ensures a certain base level of consistency in presentation of content in company documents, which readers appreciate. Readers like when headings are used to structure a document and when abbreviations and terminology are used consistently. Readers begin to doubt the writer’s knowledge level and the document’s accuracy when the document is a mess; they trust a polished document.

Having a style guide available to writers is a great training tool for new writers and a productivity boost for more experienced writers because they won’t have to question themselves or research matters of style. The style guide is there to answer their many questions. Having an established style and resources for learning how to implement it in their writing allows them to concentrate on the content, not the style and formatting.

And use of a style guide by the writers and editors gives the company a more productive workforce and more polished documents, which is good for the bottom line.

Logistics

With organizations that employ a number of writers and editors on long-term projects creating medical information on an ongoing basis, the following best practices are suggested:

Decide on a “house” dictionary

Decide on a “house” style manual

Create an in-house style guide (if necessary)

For our client’s project, we defer to Taber’s Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary, the American Medical Association’s Manual of Style, and an in-house style guide that the lead editor updates on an ongoing basis. Another popular medical dictionary is Stedman’s Medical Dictionary, and another style manual for those in the sciences is Scientific Style and Format: The CSE Manual for Authors, Editors, and Publishers.

Having a published style manual as a “house” style manual reduces the amount of material that you need to include in your in-house style guide, as it will answer common grammar, punctuation, and style questions. The in-house style guide is then used to answer questions specific to your company. There may be issues where a style item in the style manual does not work for your company and you establish a different style. Or the style manual may be too ambiguous or offer multiple solutions, and you want to establish one consistent style for your company’s documents. Other times, a style question arises that is not addressed in the style manual at all. In all of these cases, your in-house style guide should address your preferred method of dealing with these issues—particularly if they recur frequently or they take a lot of time and effort to research.

Lessons Learned

The lessons learned by the authors of the article “Making a Guide with Style” echo those of the editors at Med Communications in updating our client’s style guide:

Give 1 answer

Do not include everything

Include copyright protection and anti-plagiarism policies

Consensus is impossible

Edit, edit again, and edit some more

Make the guide accessible in different formats

Expect and plan for frequent revisions

Another lesson we have learned: it’s best if you have 1 person responsible for maintaining and updating the in-house style guide, with input from many others on the team.

Summary

Maintaining and updating an in-house style guide can be hard work, but its benefits to the readers, the writers, and the company make it well worth the effort.

References:

Allen PR.  Save money with a corporate style guide. Technical Communication. 1995;42(2):284-289.

Rydeski PJ, Walat BA, LaSalle J.  Making a guide with style. Intercom. 2005;52(4):14-15.

Resources:

Venes D, ed.  Taber’s Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary. 22nd ed. Philadelphia, PA: FA Davis Company. 2013.

Stedman TL.  Stedman’s Medical Dictionary. 28th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. 2011.

American Medical Association.  AMA Manual of Style: A Guide for Authors and Editors. 10th ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. 2007.

Council of Science Editors.  Scientific Style and Format: The CSE Manual for Authors, Editors, and Publishers. 8th ed. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. 2014.

This was originally published as a blog post on the Med Communications website.