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Aaron Dalton

Learning from History

Magnifying glass magnifies the words "Style Guide" on the cover of a spiral-bound document. Illustration on a blue background.
Magnifying glass magnifies the words "Style Guide" on the cover of a spiral-bound document. Illustration on a blue background.
aurora72 ©

This post is part of a series of case studies by and for in-house editors. The focus of this series is on the personal experiences and various roles of in-house editors. If you’re interested in writing a post for this series, please email the Member Services Committee.

One of the reasons our species has flourished is that we are, for the most part, very good at learning from the successes and failures of others. From oral traditions still practised today to the ubiquitous internet, we learn by examining the stories of others — “standing on the shoulders of giants,” as the saying goes.

When faced with an editorial challenge not easily solved by “the orange bible,” most of us turn to our favourite search engine. There, we often find others’ stories in the form of articles and forum posts to answer our questions. But sometimes the search terms are too generic, or the results we want are drowned out by a similar term in a different discipline, or maybe there just isn’t a single right answer. Sometimes we need to hear stories from people we know are in the same boat as us. Which brings us to Editors Canada’s recently announced resources for in-house editors — specifically the style guide case studies (requires member login).

In-house style guides

One project in-house editors usually deal with is a house style guide. Creating one is a non-trivial undertaking. Maintaining one takes real effort. Helping writers adhere to it … that’s a different article altogether. Where do you start? What should you do?

Searching for terms like “style guide examples” or “how do I create a style guide” brings up more noise than signal. You quickly discover that most results either point you to well-established style guides like The Chicago Manual of Style and the style guide of the American Psychological Association (APA), or are focused more on visual brand elements (important, but not sufficient). Others are so elaborate they require a Fortune 500 budget to create. And none of them mention maintenance and promotion.

Lessons from case studies

But obviously companies across the country have style guides. If only you knew someone personally that could tell you about what their company does. If only you had access to a host of people in different corporate environments with many different perspectives on making a style guide work. Well, it turns out, roughly 18 per cent of Editors Canada members identify as in-house editors, according to a 2016 survey of members! There are many dozens of stories out there waiting to be told — lessons ready to be learned!

The goal of the Editors Canada style guide case studies is to create a central place for editors on the member website to share their stories about style guides in the workplace. What worked? More importantly, what didn’t? What did it contain? How did you promote it? The idea is to facilitate an exchange of information that can be beneficial to everyone.

So, here’s the call to action: do you have experience working with an in-house style guide? Consider writing up your experiences for the community. It doesn’t have to be long. It doesn’t have to be comprehensive. But such a collection of stories will hopefully form the shoulders others can stand on, elevating the practice of creating and maintaining style guides as a whole.

Have you seen case studies work in other contexts before? Do you have any ideas for other topics that could benefit from this approach? Tell us in the comments below!


Previous post from Aaron Dalton: Laws of UX

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4 Comments on “Learning from History”

  • Rosemary Shipton


    The need for customized style guides extends far beyond in-house environments. Any large, independent publishing project that involves a group of writers and more than one editor will require one – commission of inquiry reports, for instance, or elaborate art books, or a series of any kind. You can use Chicago or some other guide as a base, but there are still myriad other decisions to be made and followed. And if your team includes people from Europe and other countries, you have to find a compromise among a number of preferences. For any editor, creating a style guide geared to a specific project is a fine learning experience.

    • Thanks so much for this, Rosemary. So true!

  • Francine Harris


    I’m in the process of completely redesigning and reassessing my organization’s style guide and editorial guidelines (which I had just finished developing this summer…) to accommodate a change from being print-focused to web based and would be happy to provide a case study when I’m done as I imagine many organizations will follow similar pathways. I’m the lone in house editor at my organization, so elements of it need to be accessible to our comms staff, operations staff, volunteer authors, and freelance editors.

    • Can’t wait, Francine! We’re moving to a web format too. Fun experience!

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