In my last piece, I wrote about the metamorphosis of the English language as brought about by the digital age. Today, I’d like to dig a little deeper to talk about style guides—and why, even in 2016, they’re crucial for strong content creation.
POLONIUS: What are you reading?
HAMLET: Words, words, words.
Whether you sympathize with Hamlet’s suffering as a depressed man living a pained existence, or you find him to be whiny and melodramatic, you have to agree with his point: on some level, at the end of the day, everything you read (or write, or speak) is only words, words, words. Splotches of ink or typed contrasts of color and light that, to a reader unfamiliar with your native tongue, might be little more than incomprehensible hieroglyphs that may well signal the end of days.
But through the organization of those images into familiar patterns, we’re able to infuse them with meaning and use them to paint pictures in one another’s brains. (Which, when you think about it, almost seems crazier than thinking about this sentence as a fugue of digital, faux-ink pictures.) And once you have down the basics of your language, your mind becomes more capable of deciphering context clues so you can adopt even more words into your knowledge base—which is an especially helpful skill in a world where language is increasingly experimental, an average of 15 new words are being added to the English language every day, and old words are continually being recycled and adopting new meaning (if you’ve ever been to Boston, this should ring true with the word “wicked”).
That recycling of language is important—not just because the digital age has proliferated the instances of new uses for our words, but also because that’s at the heart of our individual voices. People are storytellers by nature, but we’re discrete in the ways in which we tell those stories. Something in the way each of us developed has enabled us to share our perspective in unique ways. There are certain rules by which we all abide, but once we learn those rules, we’re able to use them more playfully, teaching our listeners and readers more about ourselves and our worlds, imagined or otherwise.
This is something you’ve probably picked up on in your favorite author or poet’s work. If you’ve ever read Hemingway, you likely noticed one of the elements that makes his writing distinct: his use of polysyndetic coordination. Take, for example, this excerpt from “After the Storm”:
I said, ‘Who killed him?’ and he said ‘I don’t know who killed him, but he’s dead all right,’ and it was dark and there was water standing in the street and no lights or windows broke and boats all up in the town and trees blown down and everything all blown and I got a skiff and went out and found my boat where I had her inside Mango Key and she was right only she was full of water.
George Saunders’ work also has its own distinctly conversational style that brings a level of realism to his wildly imaginative works. Here’s an example taken from “Tenth of December”:
Yes, Suzanne said. We also have a pool. You should come over next summer. It’s cool if you swim with your shirt on. And also, yes to there being something to us. You are by far the most insightful boy in our class. Even when I take into consideration the boys I knew in Montreal, I am just like: no one can compare.
But no matter who you read, you read that author for a reason. Often, it’s her lens for the world which comes together with her individual syntax to give her a voice you love.
By extension, it’s also likely you’ve read a story by a great writer wherein something suddenly stuck out and seemed wrong. Maybe a sentence took you a few reads to digest, or a piece of language fell flat. Whatever it was, it pulled you out of the moment or the world—which can be a bit traumatic, like waking up from a great dream. While this isn’t always the case, there’s a good chance something stuck out to you because the writer slipped out of her voice to say it, either through her language choices, or because a fact stuck out as suddenly incongruous with the rest of the story. And whatever the case, it can be a storyteller’s worst nightmare, causing readers to lose interest or mistrust a given speaker. (Unless that mistrust is her goal, in which case, you can blame that feeling on craftsmanship.)
In many ways, a storyteller’s voice is her identity. And, in fact, the same is true for brands.
That’s where style guides come in.
Let’s start with a bit about what style guides do. In your lifetime, you likely have encountered a style guide or other such format guideline—maybe the AP Stylebook if you studied journalism, or the Chicago Manual of Style for you more literary types. In college, we were tasked with using MLA format for our research papers, and APA style when we were working within the social sciences.
What you probably noticed when using a style guide is that while it didn’t necessarily affect exactly what you said, it likely played a role in formatting the way you said it. If you were using AP style, for example, you probably used to capitalize words such as “Web” or “Internet”—although that’s been amended since. If you were writing a title in Chicago, you probably realized you had to write longer prepositions like “beyond” in lowercase letters, even though it maybe stuck out to you and you perhaps triple-checked it just in case (just me?).
For writers and editors, style guides are near-divine dogma. Changes are only embraced when they’re embraced in the pages of the latest edition. And when they’re made, those changes are a big deal.
The trouble with that in our digital era is that it can be tough for style guides to keep up with the near-real-time speed with which our language rules change. And with so many burgeoning industries coming up with their own languages and wanting to tell their stories, it’s inevitable that the style guides wouldn’t be able to account for every nuance. But style is integral to consistency in storytelling—so what’s a content creator in the digital age to do?
Without question, there is a place in our world for those fundamental style guides that have guided journalists and authors since their inaugural issues. And sometimes there’s something to be said for the newer guides that attempt to capture elements of digital style alone—take for example Constance Hale’s Wired Style: Principles of English Usage in the Digital Age.
But if voice is your identity, and if style is the foundation upon which written voice is built, then the only true stylistic dogma is the one you create and adopt in your content creation strategy. In the digital age, consistency in voice, style, and quality go a long way in building your brand and captivating your readers.
All that sounds like it’s easier said than done, I’m sure. But you can start by focusing on major basics such as headline style and punctuation. In the digital age, the use of numerals in headlines has become nearly universal because of it’s impact on search—so even if you’re a Chicago fan at heart, that might be a good place to start. Do you love AP headlines, but crave the clarity that only the oxford comma can offer? Then keep it!
From there, dig deep into your industry and the way in which your wants to use certain terms. Often, hospitals and other health-related brands will lean toward the compound “healthcare” over “health care.” Some IT brands prefer to talk about “cyber-” anything in a similar way: “cybersecurity,” “cybercrime,” etc. Those terms will probably play a role in your content creation strategy, so you’ll want to make sure you talk about their formatting and document them in your guide.
Then think about your audience. Are you speaking to parents of young children? Then an element of empathy and humor in your writing might go a long way. Talk about that, and the kinds of words such parents would respond to. Writing for a Millennial audience? Consider their (constantly evolving) language and colloquialisms, and find an organic way to capture them in your stories across the board.
Think again about Hamlet, or, really, just a bit more broadly about Shakespeare in general, and his impact on writing since. Much of his power stems from his originality and invention in his syntax, his syllabics, and his language as a whole.
The dynamism that the digital age has introduced to language and style as a whole truly allows storytellers and content creators, for the first time in what feels like a long time, to have that kind of influence and originality on their own stories. Although the style guides you used to write your last term paper certainly form the foundations of guides to come, you’re empowered to take your knowledge of those rules and apply them for the good of your next piece.
One last tip: as Hamlet‘s Polonius once said, “This above all: to thine ownself be true.” If you maintain a style guide that speaks truthfully to your story, your brand, and your readers, you’ll find this next phase of style to be the most effective yet.