Saturday 28 January 2017

A List of Style Guides for Writers

Style guides cover a multitude of areas and it can sometimes be difficult to separate the purely writing-focused guides from the general UI/UX guides.  This is not surprising, considering how much UI/UX, technical writing and comms/marketing are starting to coalesce around the central idea of user focused design. But if you're not working in that environment, or if you are but you still want some purely writing focused resources, it can be a little difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff.

With that in mind, I've put together a list of some useful guides below:


  • MailChimp - One of my absolute favourites because they focus on the likely user mood at the point of the interaction, and tailor their writing accordingly.  This is a relatively unknown style guide, but it should absolutely be one that you spend time looking through.
  • Mozilla - A (relatively) short and to the point style guide that focuses on developer documentation.  If you write for developers (SDK, API, etc) then this is an excellent resource.
  • Apple - As you would expect from Apple, this is not the longest style guide but it is proscriptive.  One of the most useful features is the table that converts "developer speak" to "user speak", so for example "focus ring" for an Apple developer is Highlighted area" or "area ready to accept user input" for an Apple user.
  • Google - This focuses on writing for a worldwide audience and as such is concerned with clarity and simplicity above all.  If you're writing for a geographically diverse audience, especially one which is not highly technical, then this guide will help you a lot.
  • GDS - The Government Digital Service guidelines for the UK Civil Service.  Not as easy to navigate as many guides, because topics are provided in an A-Z format rather than curated into groups, but contains a lot of information and is recommended if you're writing in UK-English. (The lack of curation is odd; GDS people are normally very big on user-focused design, and this...isn't.  But if you can get past that, the information contained is often difficult to find elsewhere.)  
  • - The American equivalent of the GDS style-guide, this is focused more on US-English and the needs of federal/state public bodies, as you would expect.  But it's comprehensive, well-written and very good on grammar and "correct" writing so even if you're not writing in US-English, it's still a very useful resource.  And if you ARE writing in US-English, it's indispensable.
  • Microsoft - Microsoft provide one of the best known and popular style guides in print (see below) but this resource is far too valuable to miss off the list.  The link takes you to a page with just a single dropdown, from which you can download a PDF style and language guide for just about every language you've ever heard of, and many you haven't.  French, German and Russian are fairly obvious, but how about Khmer, Igbo and Xhosa (the African language with the clicks)?  If you write in any language other than English then this is probably the single most valuable guide on this list.


  • The Elements of Style - The classic book on how to write.  The focus is not on software documentation (unsurprisingly, as it was first published in 1920), but not having a copy of this is like being a quantum physicist who's never read Einstein's papers on relativity.  Some things are just fundamental to your profession.
  • The Economist Style Guide - Another without a software focus, and the first edition was published 30+ years ago, but if you want to write clearly and - according to the Economist - with a little flair, this is the book for you.  Its best feature is undoubtedly its effort to focus on real-world examples that are universal in application without being generic to the point of mere common sense.
  • The Chicago Manual of Style -  If you've only heard of 1 style guide, the chances are it's this one.  Now on it's 16th edition, it includes specialised sections on writing for digital technologies, including writing with XML.  If your office doesn't have this on its bookshelf, it should be because you've got the next guide on our list.
  • Microsoft Manual of Style - A slightly more specialised guide than Chicago, but no less useful for it (and probably more so if you're a technical writer).  Unless you write software for Apple and only Apple, this guide will show you why so much software documentation has the style and tone that it does.
  • The IBM Style Guide - One of the most comprehensive style guides available for the modern technical writer.  It is particularly strong on Information Architecture and content design, but don't let that fool you: this is a standout resource for all writers.
  • Developing Quality Technical Information - Another IBM publication and not strictly a guide, but so useful that leaving it off the list for that reason would be petty.  There is significant overlap with the IBM Style Guide, but this focuses more on training you and less on being a reference work.  Unless you're an acknowledged expert in technical documentation, you'll gain a great deal from this book.
There are lots more style guides out there. If you have a favourite that's not in the list then tell me in the comments and I'll add it in.

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