Style guides for the 21st century (part 2): A universal style guide?

A food menu, with prices shown as 8, 9 and 8 (with no pound sign).

Apparently, there’s a reason for this.

Last month, I found myself in a second-hand bookshop looking for some holiday reading. I think I actually squealed with excitement when I saw a copy of Steven Pinker’s recent book The Sense of Style. At this point I realised I am actually a geek.

The blurb says that the author ‘rethinks usage for the twenty-first century’. In his prologue, Pinker says ‘A manual for the new millennium cannot just perpetuate the diktats of earlier manuals’: in other words, people expect reasons for any advice. Pinker is a psycholinguist and cognitive scientist so his observations are underpinned by what he calls ‘an understanding of grammatical phenomena’ and ‘research on the mental dynamics of reading’.

And he is not the only person rethinking style guides for the twenty-first century, and using research to do so.

Sarah Richards of Content Design London has instigated an exciting project to crowd-source a universal style guide. The idea is that many of us spend a long time creating new style guides from scratch (or adapting someone else’s), and that this project would provide the basics instead.

In the LinkedIn post that kicked it off, she said: ‘There must be parts of the language that we can say “yup, that’s the best way of doing it” and move on to solving more complex content problems.’

Note that she said ‘best way’, not ‘correct way’. As I suggested in my previous blog post, a style guide is about choices, not rules.

But those choices can be made with the help of data and research. The GOV.UK style guide, which Sarah also worked on, was researched academically. Yes, you can do this.

Apparently, there are people in universities carrying out research on whether, for example, a restaurant menu with prices displayed as ‘£7’ results in better sales than one using just ‘7’ (and there was I thinking the latter was just a pretentious hipsterism).

Usability testing on content has, of course, been a big part of managing websites for a long time. Is it better to say ‘My Profile’ or ‘Your Profile’, ‘Sign in’ or ‘Log in’? The answer is: whatever is easiest for users to understand and act on.

These are what the Reading University researchers on the GOV.UK  style guide call ‘user interface’ aspects – ‘concerned with how reading online affects how language is structured and organised’. This compares with ‘editorial’ aspects of content presentation (such as writing style and house style), which are relevant to both print and digital content.

Their paper on the GOV.UK content principles (a fascinating read, if you like that sort of thing) reflects Steven Pinker’s comment quoted above. They say: ‘If people are asked to use conventions that are not familiar they may want to know the reasons for them.’

Sarah’s idea has now evolved into a pilot project, the ‘readability guidelines alpha’. It is using a wiki to collect suggestions on usable and accessible language from a community of writers, editors and other content specialists.

I am hoping to get involved. As one LinkedIn comment put it: ‘Just imagine it though. The whole world arguing about the same hyphen…. it’s a content lover’s dream.’

More posts about style guides

Style guides for the 21st century (part 1): What is a style guide anyway?

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Posted in Editing, Writing