We also have a Slack channel called #askawriter that’s open to the whole company. Anyone can ask a question that a writer will answer. If we can’t answer something in that channel, we add it to the feedback doc.
Types of questions
People from across the company ask questions about things that aren’t listed in the style guide.
They usually ask about mechanics, terms, and phrases—things that come up on their own as common issues:
- Do we capitalize this?
- What’s the official name of that new feature?
- How do we abbreviate this?
- Do we use decimals in prices?
- What’s our standing on this particular phrase?
- Do we have guidelines in place for X, Y, or Z?
- My team is asking the same style or writing questions over and over again. Can I point them to an answer?
But more often, Style Council representatives are the ones who bring questions to the meetings.
Who makes the decisions?
The Style Council
Every four weeks, a group of us meet for an hour to go over the feedback doc. I call us the Style Council, as a nod to the ’80s band fronted by Paul Weller. The Style Council includes representatives from teams across the company:
- UX Writing
- Product Marketing
- Brand Marketing
- CX Customer Education
- Security Operations
- Intellectual Property
- Design Research
- … and a few others
Volunteers and passionate word nerds needed
It’s a volunteer group, meaning everyone who attends wants to be there. Style Council reps are typically people who love style guides and cherish language. They also—critically—get excited about researching, debating, and deciding sometimes tiny details.
One important note is it doesn’t need to be only writers or editors. Some people who don’t consider themselves writers are hugely passionate about language. These people can often spot a typo a mile away. They’re the ones you want on your style team.
No one should ever be required to be on your style guide committee. A content style guide is fueled by passion for cohesive language, consistent terminology, and the ever-changing nuances of modern spelling, grammar, and punctuation. If anyone feels forced to be there, be prepared to face a tough time making decisions.
Debates, research, and relationship-building
Sometimes our decisions take several months to reach. Sometimes we need to research tiny, picky details about spelling, grammar, punctuation, and company style.
People who love this kind of detail work are ideal for the Style Council. People who get excited by long debates with multiple stakeholders make wonderful reps.
Whoever you choose to be on your style committee, it's important they understand:
- the user experience goals of your product
- the marketing goals of your company
- and the overall business goals
Specialists make great reps because they can speak for their particular part of the company and goals. Depending on your company, that might be someone from SEO, Engineering, or Project Management.
They also need to be willing to reach out to people they don’t know across the company. Much of the work is finding the correct SME (subject matter expert) who can help us make the right decisions.
If someone would rather add things to the feedback doc and have somebody else figure out what we should do about it, that’s totally fine! In fact, we encourage it.
I’ll occasionally survey the Style Council members on the frequency of meetings and whether people are still happy to be involved. Taking a regular pulse check helps make sure the monthly syncs meet everyone’s needs.
Only one updater
While the decision-making group can be as large as you want, it’s important to have only one person update the content style guide.
This is a common practice at large style guide orgs and media and publishing companies. It helps prevent errors, overwrites, and duplication. This person is the only one who adds to, removes from, or otherwise changes the style guide. They’re usually the one who socializes the updates, too.
Our decision process at Dropbox
Review and assign
At our monthly meetings, as a group, the Style Council goes through each listing in the feedback doc, in order. Based on how complex the entry is, we decide if it needs more research.
Will we need to find an SME (subject matter expert), and if so, what team might that person be on? If it needs more research, we assign someone to follow up with an SME.
If the question is fairly straightforward, we talk about it until we reach consensus.
We talk about which surface areas and audience would be affected:
- Does this entry affect in-product writing, emails, blog posts...?
- Does this entry affect people using the product, people reading the blog, people we’re marketing to...?
If more questions than answers come up, we assign someone to follow up with an SME or do more research.
If the entry is a question about voice or tone, we reach out to the Brand team for clarification.
If the entry is a word listed in Merriam-Webster Unabridged, we’ll usually go with what that entry says—but not always!
If it’s something listed in The Chicago Manual of Style or AP Stylebook, we’ll see what they have to say. We lean on Chicago, but we’re not a 100% Chicago guide. If we stray from Chicago or Merriam-Webster, we need a reason why, so we can defend our decisions if we need to.
Often, the entries are for proprietary terms or use, so we can’t look to outside guides for answers. For those, we need to dig deeper within Dropbox.
Sometimes the decisions are hard because we have a variety of personalities in the room, with varying philosophies, and the discussion reaches a stalemate. Fostering a collaborative, calm, and inclusive atmosphere helps! Taking large decisions offline or into a smaller group can also help. The Style Guide lead will generally be the one driving this process.
If we have research or more information from an SME, we’ll incorporate that info into our decision-making. Sometimes this means we have to put entries on the back burner for a while, as teams work out their use of the term.
Updating the guide
Once we’ve decided on a term or guideline and the committee has reached consensus, I add it to the style guide and check it off the feedback list. Then I update the to-dos for the next meeting.
Socializing the updates
Finally, I gather all the new additions or updates and post them to a Slack channel called #styleguideupdates.