by Jennie Ruby
Should I use quotation marks around the names of drop-down lists and radio buttons? Should I use italics for those? Am I correct in capitalizing them? These were the questions of one reader this week, and these questions come up in nearly every writing class I teach! And no wonder, because the answers live in a nebulous land between arbitrariness and convention, a land that style sheets rule.
A style sheet is a list of your formatting, punctuation, and capitalization decisions for a document. You can choose whatever styles you like. The decisions are arbitrary. That means you can exercise your own judgment or taste or even whim in making your style decisions--feel the awesome power! But not so fast: style decisions are not made in a vacuum.
Your readers have seen other publications that use capitalization for the names of on-screen tools and buttons, and the tools themselves display names that are usually capitalized. If you made the arbitrary decision to lower-case yours, your reader might notice, be surprised, or--worst of all--be confused. Plus, if you work within an organization or a team, the documents coming out of the organization should be consistent. Consistency lends credibility and professionalism to documents and stamps them with the organization's branding or corporate identity.
The one thing you do not want to do is capitalize the name in one place but not another, randomly use italics or bold for commands, sometimes use a special font and sometimes not, or make a style sheet that contradicts what anyone else in your field is doing.
So how do you make your style decisions and create your style sheet?
- Decide on a formal style guide for general text, such as the Chicago Manual of Style or the Associated Press Style Manual. Use the formal style guide for questions such as how to format book titles, state names, numbers, dates and times, and other general items.
- For software training documents, follow the on-screen displayed names of things.
- Study other publications in your field for examples of formatting and style so that you can make informed decisions.
- Record your decisions in a style sheet--A list organized alphabetically or by topic.
- Follow the style sheet for all documents you produce.
Once you have a style sheet for your documents, for your office, or for your organization, you will find a sense of confidence in formatting and styling your documents. No more wondering whether to use italics, caps, numerals, bold, or an abbreviation. Just look it up and move on. Now you can feel the real power of the style sheet.
Are you an eLearning developer who has been tasked with creating an effective voiceover script? I'm teaching a new online class in May called Writing Effective eLearning Voiceover Scripts. During the class I'll be teaching you how to define the appropriate voice and tone for a narrative text. You will learn how to take specific steps to create the engaging and personable writing style that voice-over narratives require. I hope you can join me. Click here to learn more. I also teach the Writing Training Documents and eLearning Scripts class. You can learn about that here.