Notes from a Floating Life Thoughts about productivity, digital living, and leading a simpler life

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.

And it shouldn’t be that way. I’ve seen the results of people blindly following guidelines, and when it wasn’t funny it was sad and sometimes ugly.

Let me tell you a little story …

About a dozen years ago, I was working as a technical writer at The Company That Shall Not Be Named. It was a big, multinational firm (long since swallowed up by not one but two bigger firms). I was based in the Toronto office —headquarters was located in the western United States. The company had a team of technical editors who’d review all documentation. For technical editors, they weren’t at all technically inclined. But they were arch grammarians (to a fault) and deeply immersed in the company’s style guide. A guide that ran several hundred pages.

To say these editors were pedantic is a bit of an understatement. They were pedantic and quite inflexible. To them, the style guidelines were written in stone. Inviolate. 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 that every action documented in a manual have a business case. That was simply a reason for preforming the action. Fair enough, but not every action needed a business case. In one situation, an editor asked me for the business case around starting the application I was documenting.

Take a moment to think about that.

And, in case you’re wondering, the procedure for starting the UNIX version of the application was somewhat involved.

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 email message stating The business case for starting the application? It’s simple. It’s easy to see. If someone doesn’t start it, they can’t use the thing! That ended the discussion.

Guidelines Aren’t the Final Word

Guidelines aren’t written in stone. They aren’t handed down from on high. They’re not sacrosanct. And they shouldn’t be treated as such.

While dealing with the editors at The Company That Shall Not Be Name, time and time again I tried to drum it into their heads that 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.


Because there will always be situations in which you need manipulate the guidelines, to go outside of their strictures. There will be cases where you really do need to think and act outside of the box that is your 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. But most of us will never be faced with 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.

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