Managing Managers: Supporting Style Guides with Editorial Review Boards

Julie Bradbury
Independent Consultant

When your company’s technical writing style guide isn’t answering writers’ questions and managers must independently create extensions and define style and usage exceptions, consider creating an Editorial Review Board (ERB).

What is an Editorial Review Board?
In implementations I’m familiar with, an ERB is a standing committee of writers and editors led by a writing manager. The board’s purpose is to

  • provide interpretations and extensions to the company’s technical writing style guide
  • facilitate writing and editing with agreed-on standards and help new writers come up to speed quickly
  • ensure a consistent information transfer experience for your users
  • align writing style with company business objectives

Who leads the ERB?
A writing manager chairs the group and leads in the following ways:

  • schedules and chairs regular meetings
  • develops a change submission process
  • ensures constructive discussion
  • facilitates progress to a useful decision
  • ensures that regular communication goes out to the writing community
  • follows up to encourage regular attendance from all writing groups
  • publishes updates to the style guide

The role of chairperson should rotate among the managers, so that each manager has an ownership interest in style guide changes. Manager burnout can occur if he or she serves as chairperson for more than eighteen months.

Who serves on the ERB?
The board’s membership consists of writer or editor representatives from each writing group. It meets as frequently as needed to provide timely interpretations. Some selection guidelines are to

  • choose experienced people over newcomers
  • include as many writers as editors for balance
  • select people with strong language knowledge
  • choose good listeners who can compromise
  • include people who are comfortable with gray areas
  • use people who have an interest in the details of setting standards
  • choose people who are comfortable communicating decisions to their groups

ERB members will be asking the members of the writing groups to adopt the recommended changes. Their chance at success will come from the degree to which the group respects them and from the group manager’s support of the ERB.

Typical decisions can include

  • creating a general definition of audience to guide the scope of style and content decisions
  • handling changes that occur when companies acquire other companies
  • adjusting style to writing changes such as minimalism
  • covering new product names
  • ensuring that copyright information is current
  • agreeing on a preferred word list
  • selecting standard reference books, such as a style reference and dictionary (for example, Chicago Manual of Style, Webster’s, or American Heritage Dictionary)

A good overall guideline is to proceed in support of your company’s business objectives.

Members can serve varying terms so that the number of experienced members balances new ones.

An effective ERB can provide needed support and direction, which can translate into efficiency and productivity in stress-filled writing environments.

Quotes from Managers and Writers with ERB Experience

“Standards provide consistency when there is more than one correct answer.”
—Connie Lamansky, Cadence Design Systems, Inc.

“ERBs must balance principle with realism, and consistency with flexibility.”
—Kevin Ahern, Cadence Design Systems, Inc.

“Every group expected to follow the standards should have a representative on the Board, and every writer in the company should know the procedures for submitting suggestions for changes and additions.”
—Shelley Hoyt, Independent Consultant

“Whenever possible, I would recommend that publication groups adopt an existing industry-specific style guide.”
—Kevin Ahern, Cadence Design Systems, Inc.

“Basically, ERBs are created because in many areas there is more than one “right” way to do something (or there’s a compelling reason to break from standard practice), and that means many people have strong opinions about what is right. It helps a lot if everyone understands that and can listen to others’ views without negative judgments.”
—Shelley Hoyt, Independent Consultant