The Value of Style Guides

Question: I am writing a style guide for a large medical manufacturing firm. I would like to share the general benefits of following a style guide in the introduction. Please share your personal experience with the benefits of creating and following a style guide. I am particularly interested in any dollar benefits if you have quantified them. Date: 07/08

In the past few years, I have created a couple different style guides for different projects. Since all of the members of each project were potentially readers/users of the style guide, I had a few guidelines that I followed when developing them:
Resist using editing jargon
Divide the content into more easily digested sections (e.g., format, commonly used words and spellings, etc.)
Update the document every few months, including anything that you missed during the previous draft
Store the file somewhere readily accessible to all
What I found after developing these style guides was that not only did we save time not having to go through old files (looking for the conventions we used previously), but the consistency in our documents made us look like a stronger, more organized project, as a whole. I know that’s difficult to quantify, but it’s true. Little typos in a document reflect poorly on the entire organization. Another thing that was great about the style guide was that the team members knew where to look before asking me a question about the style; I then noted any questions I received and addressed them in the next version.
As a contractor, I am often surprised when a large company does not have a style guide. They could save money by having one because every time they hire a new contractor, the contractor has to take the time to go over their preferred formats, font usage, unique words, etc. Additionally, the new contractor has to take the time to learn all of this. Also from my perspective, because I have several clients, all of whom have different style requirements, it is tough trying to remember all the requirements. It would save me a lot of time if I could quickly look up the information.
I don’t have any specific numbers to offer (although I’m sure they’re “out there”), but clearly one of the biggest cost reasons to have a style guide is to make translation/localization much less expensive. A style guide will ensure that every writer and every page uses the same terminology, meaning that the translator/localizer only has to come up with the new word once.

There are lots of intangibles that are hard to put a dollar estimate to, but I’d guess that there are some metrics out there. I’m thinking of things such as:
Ensures consistency across docs, which ensures consistency with branding/marketing efforts.
Ensures consistency regardless of who’s doing the writing and editing, which is especially helpful in orgs with high numbers of consultants (or high turnover). Although we consultant’s may wonder at something that seems odd in a new client’s style guide, and may ask about it for historical reference (or occasionally to argue about), we will generally follow it regardless.
Helps curtail style arguments among a group’s writers. (Of course, if they’re writing the initial style guide, that’s certainly not true!)
Don’t forget that consistency is especially important for items like medical devices, where government regulation may come into play, where end-users may need instant access to information, and where end-users may have English as a second language.
I am a freelance writer and one of my clients is a medium-size cardiac devices company. I am working on projects for the marketing department and although they had branding guidelines, they did not have a style guide. I suggested a style guide and the director of marketing asked, “What’s that?”

I explained the content to him and he still wasn’t too sure it was necessary until he saw my draft document. Then he realized that the guide would help with consistency with respect to acronyms, trademarks, spelling (is it logon or log on), bulleted items, hyphenation, and so on.

In addition, I was able to send the working document to a new hire; she was very appreciative because it saved her a lot of time and hassle. And they are in the process of talking to a web-content writer; I will be able to send the style guide to that person, too; again, that will save time and provide consistency.
Will this style guide go on the Web or will you print it? That’s one of the issues we’re considering. I’d like to have it online, but I’m concerned that someone will make unauthorized changes, and I don’t know how to prepare it for their intranet.
I don’t have a quantified benefit, but one benefit that could be realized in a text-to-web or text-to-hard-copy-publication is this: My client has me write copy in a style sheet and follow strict instructions on how to style text (headers, subheaders, numbered lists, bulleted lists, sidebars, notes to graphic designers, etc.) The Web or hard-copy designers can quickly convert that styled text into his or her own Web or (say) InDesign styles that will be used for Web or print publication. Make sense? The point: Time saved in converting copy for Web or print publications.

With specific regard to Style Guides, Amy Einshohn’s The Copyeditors Handbook has a great guide for making decisions on editorial preferences (pgs. 423-429).
The two biggest benefits of a style guide are 1) long-term savings (time and money) during document writing, reviewing, and production and 2) a guide to create clear, consistent, and professional documentation company-wide (if the entire company has access to it).