Help me, CIA, please — how did your writers’ style guide get to be the hottest link on the Internet?

As a proofreader, I wish the various style guides our clients produce could get this much attention. But, instead, every Tom, Dick and Boris on the Internet is poring over this link to the CIA’s style guide for its in-house writers.

I’ll bet my whole stack of red pencils that you’re yawning just looking at all that verbiage. But wait, there’s more! Their style guide is 190 pages long; in spite of that, gazillions of spy buffs are taking note of it. I’m sorry to say that sometimes our clients’ guides languish unread even though they have only a few pages of brilliant and helpful guidance.DI_Style_Manual_Page_001

Upon reading the CIA’s guide, I found that “intelligence” might actually be their middle name, after all. When it comes to recognizing the importance of clear writing in their materials, their guide is great stuff, I kid you not. But not for the reason the Internet readers think — to discover CIA secrets. It’s great because using it will make CIA writing make sense, be accurate and flow like the Russian River. That’s what style guides do. They’re created to help an organization’s employees communicate with each other and their target audiences in a succinct and consistent way. These are important to your brand. Why? Because errors in the message can compromise the security of your brand. It can also undermine the impression of the competence and professionalism of your company. If you can’t be bothered to use the right logo in the right way, for example, or spell check your work, why would your clients think you’ll check for production errors?

There are two basic purposes in a style guide: to give direction on the design of a piece and to give guidance on how to communicate in writing as effectively as possible. You can get ideas to create your own guide if you don’t have one by searching the Internet for design or writing style guides. Here are two helpful links:

A primer on how to create a design style guide:

How to create a guide for writers:

The Internet spy seekers are hoping to break the CIA code, I guess, by examining their style guide, but I’m hoping their takeaway will be the real inside scoop: how to communicate in the best way possible. There is a cache of very good advice in its pages. Basically, keep it short and to the point. They didn’t manage to keep it short, but, in their defense, they had a lot of territory to cover.

I hope your takeaway is to create or find your own style guide and use it. My takeaway is that from now on I’m going to suggest that our style guides be kept under lock and key and occasionally leaked, not sent, to the users. It worked for the CIA. (Keep this caper under your hat.)