10 Technical Writing Style Guides You Can Use
Great US soccer player Mia Hamm famously said, “It is more difficult to stay on top than to get there,” which suggests that consistency is a highly desirable trait. In the field of technical writing, consistency is crucial because it provides the sense of confidence and continuity that every tech product needs to engage a user base. Also, consistency creates opportunities to build communities around technical documentation.
How do you make your technical documentation more consistent? One of the first steps is to adhere to a technical writing style guide. Itself a piece of documentation, a style guide defines communication standards for any tech document that your business produces, and all of your writers can follow it. It usually covers the voice, structure, and technical conventions (such as the format of the text, audio, and images) used in the documentation.
Since style guides cover so much ground, they can be a chore to create from scratch. Fortunately, many companies make their own technical writing style guides available publicly, so you can analyze their strengths as you create your own style.
What is writing style?
The writing choices an author makes tend to follow patterns. When a writer finds a technique or habit they like, they stick with it, often throughout their entire career. Put all those writing choices together, and the writing takes on a unique “voice” that “sounds” different from other writing.
However, just because a writer uses one writing style doesn’t mean they’re tied to it forever. Writers are free to change up their style as needed, even within the same work, just by altering their techniques and making different choices. Some sections might call for a serious style, while just a few paragraphs later a playful one is needed.
While it’s difficult to define writing style, don’t make the mistake of conflating it with the types of writing . For example, narrative writing is a type of writing, but you can do it in any number of styles : playful, somber, clinical, casual, etc. The same can be said for expository, persuasive, and descriptive writing .
What Authors Say About Writing Style
- “Style is the dress of thoughts; and let them be ever so just, if your style is homely, coarse, and vulgar, they will appear to as much disadvantage.” —Philip Dormer Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield
- “When we see a natural style, we are astonished and delighted; for we expected to see an author, and we find a man.” —Blaise Pascal
- “The essence of a sound style is that it cannot be reduced to rules–that it is a living and breathing thing with something of the devilish in it–that it fits its proprietor tightly yet ever so loosely, as his skin fits him. It is, in fact, quite as seriously an integral part of him as that skin is. . . . In brief, a style is always the outward and visible symbol of a man, and cannot be anything else.” —H.L. Mencken
- “You do not create a style. You work, and develop yourself; your style is an emanation from your own being.” —Katherine Anne Porter
- “Style is that which indicates how the writer takes himself and what he is saying. It is the mind skating circles around itself as it moves forward.” —Robert Frost
- “Style is what unites memory or recollection, ideology, sentiment, nostalgia, presentiment, to the way we express all that. It’s not what we say but how we say it that matters.” —Federico Fellini
- “Proper words in proper places, make the true definition of style.” —Jonathan Swift
- “The web, then, or the pattern, a web at once sensuous and logical, an elegant and pregnant texture: that is style.” —Robert Louis Stevenson
- “Thought and speech are inseparable from each other. Matter and expression are parts of one; style is a thinking out into language.” —Cardinal John Henry Newman
- “Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.” —Stephen King
- “It is only by writing, not dreaming about it, that we develop our own style.” —P.D. James
Every author makes key decisions about their writing, and those decisions build over time into a cohesive style. So, what decisions do they have to make? In other words, what are the elements of writing styles?
Techniques for non-writers
You don’t need to be a trained or experienced writer to provide your users with a good experience. Pick words that sound comfortable to you — they’ll feel comfortable to others, too. But sometimes, that’s not as easy as it sounds. If you get stuck, these techniques can help you out.
Imagine that you’re talking to a friend about your app. How would you explain the app to them? How would you talk about its features or give them instructions? Better yet, explain the app to an actual person who hasn’t used it yet.
Imagine how you would describe a completely different app. For instance, if you’re making a game, think of what you’d say or write to describe a financial or a news app. The contrast in the language and stucture you use can give you more insight into the right words for what you’re actually writing about.
AP style guidelines for headlines
AP style guidelines for headlines may differ from what certain content writers or marketers are used to. Generally speaking, AP style uses title case for headlines, which means all words are capitalized except for certain short words, such as articles and short prepositions.
Best practices for numbers
Do you have five minutes to discuss numbers? Yesterday, I spent $3 on a slice of pizza. Then, my 13-year-old niece asked me to order 11 pizza pies for her friends. So, I spent another $150 on pizza. I predict that by the time I’m 70-years-old, I’ll have spent 800 million on pizza!
Best practices for dates
Can you believe it’s Jan. 1 already? I’m planning for a party on Feb. 5, 2021. I’m hoping that by February 2021, there will be more venues available. The ideal time slot for the party is 1 p.m., but I could settle for noon.
Best practices for citations
Best practices for capitalization
I traveled south down the Colorado River to reach the area of the Midwest I wanted to see. It’s a shame I missed the Winter Olympics this year. I heard Doctor Smith attended. My favorite athlete didn’t participate. They visited a doctor last fall for a bad injury.
Best practices for headlines
Best practices for referring to technology and social media
From a more concise writing style to a simplified approach to content, there are several benefits of adapting to the AP style. Fortunately, content writers and content strategists don’t need to memorize all of the ins and outs of AP style to master the basics of clearer writing. By adding the details to your style guide and using an AI writing assistant, like Writer , you can incorporate these best practices seamlessly across each content asset you produce.