Do You Even Need a Style Guide? Not Necessarily

What’s the proper way to make an apple pie? Are they shredded, diced, or sliced apples? Do you make your own crust or buy pre-made crusts? Do you have a fancy lattice top or the Dutch apple crumble top?

And whose recipe do you follow? Is it the first one you Googled, or is it Memaw’s secret family recipe handed down from generation to generation?

Ask this question on Facebook, and you’ll have plenty of strong opinions from plenty of people, and about 12 back-and-forth arguments before someone is calling someone else a Nazi.

Style Guides Are Like Apple Pies

This is how people, especially writers, feel about their style guides.

Different style guide examples. It's hard to choose the right one.To them, their style guide is the One True Guide, their Bible about how issues and misunderstandings about language, punctuation, and even grammar are to be handled.

There are a few dozen style guides, including ones from the Associated Press, Chicago Manual of Style, American Psychological Association, Modern Language Association, Turabian, Council of Science Editors, and even The Elements of Style.

And you’ll find outspoken proponents of every one of them.

Each person will insist that their style guide is the right one and will argue with those heathens who don’t agree to worship The One True Guide.

Except there’s no One True Guide.

No one is able to lay claim that their guide is the definitive way to punctuate sentences, abbreviate states, or denote time (a.m./p.m. versus AM/PM).

(But you can have my Oxford comma when you pry it from my cold, stiff, and dead fingers, Associated Press!)

Each guide is assembled by learned editors who have heated discussions about each new entry and change in their guide.

They’ve discussed and debated new issues as they come up, they look at how language is being used and written in society, and they update the guides to reflect those changes when necessary.

In May 2012, the Associated Press said they would no longer object to using the word ‘hopefully’ at the beginning of a sentence, rather than making people say ‘I am hopeful’ or ‘It is hoped that.’

People went nuts. They howled in protest, they screamed and tore their garments, and the Internet burned for three days. People said they were going to die on this hill and they weren’t going to let any stupid Associated Press tell them how to use English when Mrs. Kugelschreiber had drummed this rule into them so many years ago. They were going to stick with the “right” way to do it, despite what these so-called experts said.

Ahh, innocent times.

Of course, the angry mob missed two important points:

  1. It was a made-up rule to begin, having been created in the 1960s. Before then, it was acceptable to start sentences with “hopefully.” Besides, there’s no rule about starting sentences with other floating sentence adverbs like “sadly,” “unfortunately,” and “surprisingly,” so this one was just something people latched onto without understanding why.
  2. The rule only applied to writers and editors who worked for the Associated Press. It had nothing to do with general language usage. People were free to start or not start sentences with “hopefully” to their heart’s content.

This is the important thing to remember about style guides: While these are prescriptive guides, they are by no means the official rules for The Way English Is Done. These guides are only for a particular job, field, or organization.

The Associated Press Stylebook tells writers about the rules they must follow when writing for the Associated Press, although many non-AP journalists use it. The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage is only meant for writers and editors at the New York Times. The APA Publication Manual from the American Psychological Association is written for academics in social sciences, like psychology, speech communication, linguistics, and sociology.

And if you’re not part of those organizations, you are not bound by those rules.

Which Style Guide Should I Use?

Bloggers and content marketers can argue about which style guide is the best, but there’s no right answer. I always recommend bloggers use the AP Stylebook, because it’s small, inexpensive, and addresses 95% of our issues.

I also like the AP Stylebook because many bloggers act as citizen journalists, which means we should follow the guide that most other journalists use.

However, there’s no real guide for bloggers to use. We’re free to pick and choose, but we do so voluntarily, not because there’s an official Way English Is Done.

Bottom line: As long as you spell words right and put them in the right order, the rest is up to you. The benefit of a style guide is that it helps you be consistent throughout your writing. It means you always know where to put punctuation, whether you’re going to follow the postal abbreviations for U.S. states, and how to capitalize headlines.

And whether you should use the Oxford Comma or if you’re a filthy, godless monster.

This means you can pick one you like the best and are most familiar with, or you can even create your own style guide. Just make sure you follow it consistently and apply it to all of your business writing — blog articles, web copy, brochures, emails, letters, and even internal communications.

Photo credit: FixedAndFrailing (Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0)

A 25 Page Booklet is not a Book

Maybe I’m being elitist, but I’m getting annoyed at what people call “books” these days.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a so-called expert advise a room full of people to “slap together a short book to demonstrate your expertise on a topic.”

“It doesn’t actually need to be that long — 30, 40 pages tops. I churned mine out in a weekend,” one expert said a few years ago. He was giving a talk about how writing a book can get you speaking gigs and TV appearances.

As a real book author, this bothers me. It bothers me because it cheapens what I do. It turns the several hundred hours I’ve spent on my four co-authored books into a weekend errand you tackle between washing the car and getting a haircut.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I stayed up well past 3:00 am, writing until I fell asleep at my keyboard only to wake up and still be typing.
One does not simply "slap a book together"
But here’s this guy telling me you can just barf out a random assortment of words on any topic in a few hours, upload it to CreateSpace, and bada-boom bada-bing, you’ve got a book!

But my rant is not against self-published books. In fact, one of my books, The Owned Media Doctrine, is a self-published/traditionally-published hybrid of sorts. The others were published by Wiley and Que Biz-Tech (a Pearson imprint). And they’re all 250 pages and longer. So you’ll understand why I get annoyed when someone equates a 30 page weekend project with an actual book.

These stacks of paper aren’t books, they’re booklets. The -let comes from French and means diminutive or small. It’s literally a “little book.”

“If you run short of material, just bump the font size up to 13, set the line spacing to 1.5 lines, and bump the margins in a quarter of an inch,” said the guy. “I turned a 20 page book into a 35 page book that way,” he boasted. (I actually groaned out loud at that, and people looked at me funny.)

And punctuation and grammar? Don’t even get me started on punctuation and grammar! I’ve only ever heard one booklet advocate suggest getting someone to proofread the manuscript. The others recommend giving it one more read through on Sunday “with fresh eyes.” My books went through four read throughs before they were ever printed, and we’re still finding issues.

The whole reason for writing a book is to demonstrate your expertise on a topic. It implies that you have a depth and a breadth of knowledge that the average industry member does not. That you study and research more than the rest of the people in your field. (Whether you do or not is a different matter entirely.)

This is important if you ever want to get speaking gigs, especially paid ones. The idea is that you just wave your book in front of the conference organizer, and they’ll believe your expertise, and boom, you’re hired.

The problem is that 1) the minimum acceptable standard of what we call a “book” is slipping, and 2) our guy’s advice implies conference organizers are easily distracted by jangling car keys in front of them.

Booklets Play an Important Role

Look, these booklets might be fine for sharing with potential clients. You could even sell them for $.99 or $1.99. I know one guy who has made a decent living by writing ebooks and booklets about specific elite athletic techniques and selling them for $10 or $15.

He even goes so far as to break them out, chapter by chapter, and sells those for $.99 apiece. If you can do that, more power to you. This guy has a specialized piece of knowledge that, frankly, doesn’t need an entire 280 page book. It can be explained in a few thousand words with some pictures and diagrams. It doesn’t need to be any more than that.

There are booklets out there for launching a business, passing specific industry certifications, repairing appliances, cast iron cooking, and changing the oil in your car. There are short 15,000 word novellas and poetry booklets that take up 25 pages.

In the fiction world, these booklets are called chapbooks. Historically, those meant small pamphlets containing ballads or tracts, and they were sold by peddlers called “chapmen.” To modern creative writers, chapbooks are small paperback booklets usually containing poems or short stories.

And the chapbook authors are appropriately humble about their work. They recognize that this is a tiny work and not on the same level as a regular book. But they’ve also spent hours and hours on it, after spending years honing their craft to even start writing the book. It’s not something they “slapped together” one weekend either.

You Should Still Be Proud

Don’t get me wrong. What you’ve done is impressive, and you should be proud. You’ve strung together 4,000 – 5,000 words about an area you’re an expert in. I’ll bet 95% of the US population can’t say that. You have done something that only a few million people throughout history have ever done. And I’ll even say this qualifies you as a “writer.”

But that’s the first step. You’ve got a lot more knowledge rattling around in that great big brain of yours — at least another 55,000 words on that subject. You know about the history of your industry, the important issues of the day, the major themes, the political ramifications, and the tax implications.

You know the inside baseball, the little rules, the big problems, and what it all means for the beginner and expert in your industry. You could talk for hours and hours about the things you know and the things you’ve seen, and if we wrote it all down, we’d have 200 pages on the subject.

And that’s a book.

Your book should be thick. It should have heft. It should thunk when you drop it on your desk. It shouldn’t fit in your pocket. It’s the thing you’ll spend a few hundred hours on, wavering between pulling out your hair and setting your hair on fire. And when you’re done, it will be one of the proudest moments of your life, when you see that something you created occupies a physical space in the world, and will be around long after you’re gone.

If you want a real weekend project, write an outline of the book you’d like to read on your particular topic. Break it up into chapters (at least 12, no more than 16), sections, and sub-sections. And then write one sub-section for at least 1,000 words.

Then fill out the rest, one section and one day at a time. If you can write one section a day, at least 1,000 words per section, you should finish it in less than six months.

Then you’ll have a real book — something you can boast about and be proud of.

And I want a signed copy.

The Tortoise and The Hare on Writing a Book

There are two ways to write a book — at least, two effective ways. I’ve written nearly five books with one method; I’ve wanted to write a book with the other. Which kind of writer, books or otherwise, are you?

The Tortoise

This is the ideal writer. He or she writes every single day. You don’t have to churn out a lot of material, you have to churn out material consistently. Write 600 words every day — that’s about 1 word processing page — and at the end of six months, 180 days, you’ll have a book.*

(* Nerdy tech specs: This is based on the ratio of 1 word processing page equalling 1.5 trade paperback pages, like Branding Yourself or No Bullshit Social Media. This will be slightly different/more for regular paperbacks, and I couldn’t even tell you what it equals for the big computer Dummies-style books.)

Of course, most biz-tech book publishers are slave driversinsistent about their schedule, and they give you four months to get your book done. So you’d actually need to jump up your output to 2 pages per day, giving yourself weekends off.

Still, if you can write 1 page per 60 – 90 minutes — again, slow and steady — you’ll be doing okay. You just can’t slack off or skip a day, because you’ll need to double-up on the next day.

The Hare

This is how I write books. It’s how I studied in college. It’s how I face a lot of projects that I have to do. (Unless you’re a client. Then I work on your stuff all the time, and think about it, and you, constantly.)

The Hare waits until a day or two before the deadline, and races through all the pages needed to meet the deadline.

When Kyle Lacy and I wrote Branding Yourself, I could generally do 1 chapter, about 10 – 12 pages, in 4 hours. Of course, that meant a lot of late nights, fast typing, and serious editing before it was finished. I got smarter when I wrote No Bullshit Social Media with Jason Falls: I took 4 days to write a single chapter, not because it was harder, but because I didn’t want to give myself such short deadlines and long hours.

You Need to be a Tortoise

I cannot stridently stress enough how important it is that you write like a tortoise, not a hare. I like to call the hare’s approach cram writing.

Cram writing is not for the novice writer, or even the person who has been writing for a couple years. Cram writing should only be done by someone who has been writing for a long, long time, and even then, you’d better be prepared for extensive editing and rewriting. There’s no one-and-done in cram writing. Anytime I’ve done it, I’ve had to edit everything twice before turning it in, and even then, my editors still had comments and questions.

Compare that to famed humor novelist, Christopher Moore, who is lucky if he finishes 2 pages in a single day’s writing. That’s 1200 words in about 5 – 6 hours, and it’s his job. He’s a trained professional with more than a few best-selling books to his name, and he can barely finish 2 pages in one day.

On the other hand, he rarely, if ever, has to edit his work.

Think of it. No rewrites, no edits, no typos, no mistakes, no snarky comments from editors. Nothing. Write it once, wait for the galley proofs, and you’re golden.

I try to avoid cram writing whenever possible, and I do recognize the difference in my writing when I give myself a few days to meet a deadline, rather than racing to beat it. I’ve managed to give myself extra time for the last couple of efforts, and have appreciated the difference.

If you’re thinking about writing a book, or an extra-long piece for publication, unless you are a seriously-trained professional who knows his or her limits and capabilities, I do not recommend you try cram writing.

Plan out your schedule, work at a comfortable rate, and pace yourself to be productive over the long haul. If you have to rush to get everything done, look at your time management and see if you can figure out where you’re falling down.

Random Thoughts on Writing a Book

I’ve finished my second book, Branding Yourself, with my good friend, Kyle Lacy, and am working on a third book on networking with Jeremy Dearringer, CEO of Slingshot SEO, an SEO company here in Indianapolis. I also have a couple other writing projects in the works, although those are still under wraps. I hope to have some news about those by Springtime.

But I’ve learned a few things about becoming a book author, things that I thought were easy, and things that I learned are hard.

  • Copies of the book Branding Yourself by Erik Deckers and Kyle Lacy

    In all my years, this is the 5th most beautiful sight I have ever seen.

    Writing a book isn’t really that hard, if you write on a regular basis. I used to think the advice “write every day” was stupid. “Who has time for that?” I thought. “I have work to do.” Turns out the work I was doing was writing anyway, and when I decided to write intentionally — to focus on new aspects of writing and become better at them — my writing improved.

  • Have a good editor. I learned a long time ago that while I’m a stickler about grammar and punctuation, I make a crapload of mistakes. Even though I catch them on second and third edits, I still usually find one or two that has to be fixed. Pearson just sent Kyle and me the “gathers” of the book. Individual chapters that we need to read over and mark any errors before the second printing. Believe it or not, with two writers and four editors, I found a couple errors. (What’s worse, they were mine!)
  • The hard part isn’t writing the book, it’s marketing it. In order to support the book, and sell copies, I’m starting to travel more to promote it during talks. Next week, I’ll be in Northern Indiana one night and Lexington, Kentucky the next day. I’m trying to do some paid speaking gigs, but am thinking about adopting Scott Stratten’s idea when he was promoting UnMarketing (affiliate link). Scott made an offer to any group: buy 100 of my books, and I’ll travel out to you. I’m thinking about doing that for anyone who buys 50 of my books, as long as you’re within driving distance. But compare that to writing. I could write at home, spend three hours, and knock out about 6,000 words, or almost an entire chapter. It’ll take me that long to drive to most of my speaking gigs.
  • Know your subject matter. Writing teachers love to say “write what you know” (which presents a problem for science fiction or fantasy writers). But this makes life so much easier when you’re writing a book. I remember struggling with a couple of chapters on Twitter Marketing for Dummies because I didn’t use some of the tools we were writing about. I had to spend a lot of time using them before I could write about them, which threw a huge monkey wrench into my writing schedule.
  • Have a writing schedule, and stick with it. John Grisham’s writing schedule, when he first started out, was to write from 7 am to 8 am, before he opened his law office. Christopher Moore’s schedule involves a lot of screwing around all day before he settles down after lunch and writes for 4 or 5 hours. Mine is to write at night, after the kids are in bed, and go for about 4 hours. Ignore the people who tell you to wake up early because mornings are more productive, or the people who tell you to stay up late because no one is awake then. Do what’s best for your body and your schedule. If you’re a night owl, stay up late. If you’re an early bird, get up and get that worm. But create a schedule and stick to it.
  • Shut off distractions. I love my Twitter network, and love chatting. But they are also the biggest interruption of my day, because they’re always more interesting than whatever I’m doing (even as I’ve written this post, I’ve sent 4 tweets). So when I’m writing, and have the willpower to do so, I shut off TweetDeck, close my Gmail, turn off the notifiers, and get to work. I can save myself 30 minutes of writing when I do that. My wife once asked me why I didn’t do that more, and I told her to “rephrase your question in the form of a tweet.”

Writing styles and processes are different for everyone. What are yours? Do you do anything special to get your writing done, to be more efficient and effective, or even to avoid distractions? Leave a comment and let me know.

My book, Branding Yourself: How to Use Social Media to Invent or Reinvent Yourself (affiliate link), is available on Amazon.com, as well as at Barnes & Noble and Borders bookstores. I wrote it with my good friend, Kyle Lacy.