Grammar in Neverland—Publishing a Style Guide at a Big Tech Company

Home/Publications/CIDM eNews/Information Management News 08.12/Grammar in Neverland—Publishing a Style Guide at a Big Tech Company

Mike Maass, Citrix Systems, Inc.

Citrix is a peculiar place to be an editor. Largely engineering driven—though certainly becoming more design centric—this is a place where technical know-how and gadget-y awareness are the norm. At Citrix, words like “virtualization” and “cloud computing” are common parlance, and being “connected” means accessing your work files and computer from anywhere, anytime, on any device. For a simple grammar guy like me, it is a place of wonder. A living science fiction story. A strange and magnificent milieu of technology and Man.

It is in this place that I recently published a writing style guide (see Figures 1 and 2). A year in the making, the style guide addresses the unique challenges of crafting copy for the company’s desktop virtualization and cloud infrastructure software products. Over the course of the project, I came to realize that I was navigating mostly uncharted waters, solving unique challenges, and creating new processes along the way.

I’d like to share some of those insights with you in hopes that, should you be considering publishing a style guide yourself, they might help you take the first step.

1. Just do it, cuz nobody’s gonna do it for you.

And they shouldn’t because, after all, you’re the language pro. That’s not to say you should go it alone. Quite the opposite is true. As the editor, your job is largely collaborative. This may sound counter intuitive to editors accustomed to quiet isolation, but it’s true. As an English expert working for a technology company, your role includes

  • Providing guidance for everything related to Standard English (grammar, spelling, punctuation, sentence construction, and so on) and industry writing style.
  • Defining and driving company voice and tone guidelines.
  • Collaborating with subject matter experts to define and manage company terminology, glossaries, and taxonomies.

This last bullet is really important. Face it, one editor can’t possibly own every single unique term that appears in a company’s product portfolio. That is why collaboration is so important to your success as an editor. At the end of the day, you are the right person to be managing the style guide publication process, but it’s the subject matter experts with whom you work that will make your project a success.

 

2. Reach out to other content groups ASAP.

This is especially true if you’re operating inside a large, matrixed organization like Citrix. For me, this came on Day 1. No kidding, I spent my first week as a Citrix employee at the 2010 CIDM Best Practices conference in Hampton, VA, where I met probably 10 other content-related Citrix employees. Getting your name out there and building relationships is key to your long-term success implementing a company-wide style guide, so get started as soon as you can.

3. Team up.

Find someone to work with and get the ball rolling. But don’t just choose the first or most convenient person you meet. Choose someone who is

  • Compatible, fun to work with, and with whom you can work happily and efficiently.
  • Smarter than you. Approach your style guide like any other project—as a learning opportunity. Surround yourself with smart people, listen to what they have to say, and apply your new knowledge to the task at hand.
  • Equipped with complementary skills. In my case, I was fortunate to work with a DITA expert who, as it turns out, was instrumental in helping me get the style guide online and rolled out across the company. If you’re already a DITA expert, look for someone with a knack for marketing or someone who loves to speak in front of crowds. Whatever that complementary skill is, there is someone at your company who has it. Find that person.

 

4. Solve for a business goal.

This will be hard to swallow, but as anyone who’s ever done a web usability test will tell you: People don’t read…much. That is, people only read as much as they think they need to use your product or web site. However, unless your site is completely wordless, they have to read at least a word or two. This is why every word you put on that screen is so important. This is also why words are so important to your business. Believe it or not, a sound content strategy—part of which is establishing thorough writing and style standards—affects your company’s bottom line. Framing your guide within the context of the business not only pulls it out of the editorial weeds, but more importantly, it reframes your project in the language of the decision makers. Without their support, your guide becomes just another albatross following a sailed ship.

5. Tout your work and share your success.

Publishing your style guide is a big accomplishment, and you should be proud. But your work isn’t done. Now it’s time to share what you’ve accomplished and make sure people know about it. Sharing could mean putting together an in-house marketing campaign, designing a series of workshops, or sharing your story at a conference. In my case it was all three. Whatever your strategy, just remember that most people don’t know who you are or what you’ve done, but stand to benefit from finding out. Take this opportunity to brag a little, give credit where it’s due, and share the success you’ve had.

Being a language expert in a technology company isn’t easy. For me, it is precisely this challenge that’s so appealing. No matter what your challenge, approach it as a learning opportunity and forge ahead. Remember to partner with someone who’s fun to work with, who you can learn from, and who knows how to do something you don’t. Stay focused on the business goal and remember: No matter how unfamiliar the territory, there’s someone else out there who can learn from you.

Author Bio
Mike Maass (mike.maass@citrix.com) is Principal Editor at Citrix Systems, Inc. where he works with the Product Design team to define language and user experience guidelines for the company’s online collaboration, virtual computing, and cloud infrastructure software products. Mike recently presented a case study of his project at CMS/DITA 2012 in La Jolla, CA.

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