Why We Need Standards

No matter what you’re doing, you need to follow a standard. “But, Karla,” you say, “That’s just being anal. Everyone has their own way doing things.” Yes, everyone does. And that’s a problem.

Standards can be applied when cooking dinner, documenting a software product, coding a software application, performing a pre-flight checklist, or operating on someone’s brain. If everyone is “doing their own thing,” accidents happen, steps are skipped, errors are made, and the next person has to spend lot$ of time and energy to figure out what the heck you did. If you’re following a standard, everyone is on the same page.

“Should I manually format this document or should I use a style sheet? Meh, what do I care? I’ll never touch this document again.” Let’s suppose the document is content for a company newsletter. The company name has changed, the design has changed, everything that was orange is now supposed to be red, and so on. The person who has to update your lazily formatted document has to manually change all of your manual formatting, or create a style sheet and apply the style sheet throughout the document. Neither process is fast, and both processes are tedious—this time. But if you use a style sheet, the next time the document has to be updated, e.g., if the color scheme needs to be changed again, you only have to update the style sheet, not the whole document.Preview Changes

“Should I number every step or use bullets?” For this one, you don’t need to guess. Every technical writer who knows what’s she’s doing knows that you number steps that are to be performed in order and use bullets if order does not matter. That’s the standard for technical procedures. It’s not confusing. Yet so many “writers” do this wrong.

Do I write “Either of these dogs is the father” or “Either of these dogs are the father”? Either IS! That’s a grammatical standard.

On the GUI, how do I order buttons? Is it OK, Cancel, Help, or OK, Help, Cancel, or…? That depends on whether your group follows Windows guidelines, Apple guidelines, or Java guidelines. Find out which standard you’re following, if you’re even following one, so that you all follow the same guidelines. Hours of engineering time ($$$) are wasted “fixing” the previous programmer’s non-standard code, and the workarounds constructed because of the code. There are more complex coding standards that I have no clue about. The point is: Follow. The. Standard.

“What standard?” That depends on what you’re doing and who’s in charge. Ask your manager what the standard is. If he’s confused, discuss standards with your coworkers. If you can come to an agreement over which standard you should follow, then you’re halfway there. Getting people to stick to the standard is much harder.

When you get into an airplane, you hope that the pilot has followed the preflight check list. When you have surgery, you hope that your surgery team has followed commonly accepted protocols. And when you open up a document that you didn’t write and it’s your job to update it, you really hope that the author has followed a standard.

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