Guidelines are Just a Guide

I've been saying that for years, but not many people have been listening. In fact, many people can't seem to see beyond whatever guidelines they're dealing with. For them, the guidelines are it. Nothing else matters.

I've seen the results of people blindly following guidelines. When it wasn't funny, it was sad and sometimes ugly.

Let me tell you a little story ...

Earlier in this century, I was working as a technical writer at large enterprise software firm. At the company's mothership were a team of technical editors who'd review all documentation. For technical editors, they weren't at all technical or knowledgeable about the company's products. But they were arch grammarians and deeply immersed in the company's (overly) thick style guide.

To say these editors were pedantic is a bit of an understatement. They were pedantic and inflexible. To them, the style guide was written in stone. Inviolate. Sacrosanct. Which caused some problems with me, especially when I attempted to point out situations in which the style guidelines fell flat.

One sticking point for me was that the guidelines mandated every action documented in a manual must have a business case. That was simply a reason for performing the action, in case you're wondering. Fair enough, but not every action needed a business case. In one situation, an editor emailed me asking what the business case for starting the application was.

Take a moment to think about that. Done? Let's continue.

I spent several minutes cursing this person for an idiot (and adding various profanities before the word idiot), amusing the people with whom I shared an office at the time. Then, I wrote a quick reply stating The business case for starting the application? Simple: if someone doesn't start it, they can't use the thing! That ended the discussion.

Guidelines aren't written in stone. They aren't handed down from on high. They're not the be all, end all. And they shouldn't be treated as such.

Guidelines are just that: a guide. They show you a way, a path. They work in many situations. But guidelines also need to be flexible. There will always be situations in which you need to go outside of the strictures of the guidelines.

This doesn't just apply to writing. It also applies to ... well to just about anything else. There are exceptions, of course — aircraft or nuclear power plant maintenance, surgery, and the like. Situations where life and safety are threatened. Most of us, though, will never face those situations.

Take most guidelines you encounter with a grain of salt. And remember that even though guidelines provide a good template for whatever you're doing, you have to be prepared for those times in which you can't shoehorn something into the guidelines. Be flexible and be ready to move away from the strictures of those guidelines.