A Beginner’s Guide to Standardizing Document Content

by | Nov 12, 2020 | knowledge, simplicity, standardization


We’ve discussed, at a very high level, the importance of standards and standardization. Over the past few weeks, I’ve gotten a lot of questions from readers asking me to elaborate on the standardization basics of creating a document or a manual. Very well. Let’s get into it! Standards in this area break down into the following categories:

  • Layout formatting
  • Punctuation
  • Grammar
  • Sentence structure
  • Style
  • Document and department consistency
  • Regulatory requirements
  • Revision process

These categories contain hundreds of possible conversations. We will discuss some of the more common mistakes in each of them over the next several weeks – and what you can do to correct them. At the end of the day, you need to know what is the “right way” to do things in each of these areas and, once you know that, consistency is the key. Consistency, at all costs, will allow you to standardize your manuals and documents and keep them that way. It requires effort and a commitment to keep them standardized. This critical point warrants some more explanation.

At my first company, we offered a service where we “cleaned up” manuals for clients. This process is a big undertaking, especially for sizable legacy documents. Essentially, we sat down with clients, reviewed where they were, where they thought they wanted to go (many had no idea), and then we showed them where they could go. I can’t recall a single time when a client came to us and said, “I know exactly what I want with these books.” It was always, “I’m thinking X; will that work?” or, more commonly, “I don’t know what to do with these; please fix them for me.” And, so we did. Once we standardized their manuals, many of these clients continued to have us manage the revision process including all subsequent file changes for them. A few did not. Those few paid us a bunch of money to standardize their manuals and then took them back in-house for their own people to manage. For several years, we allowed this practice, and then we started to notice a very distinct pattern.

For each of those clients that took their new, pristine, and perfectly standardized manuals back in-house for their own people to manage, one by one, they would come back to us about two years later and ask us to clean them up again. With their staff not able or, in some cases, not willing to manage the revision processes we had set in place for them, their manuals began degrading as soon as the first changes were made. You see, knowing the standards and why they are important, combined with dedication to the integrity and consistency of those standards, is absolutely required to keep your manuals standardized.

Ultimately, we started turning away jobs unless the client agreed to have us also do all of their follow-on revisions as well. There were some complaints from the “we want to do it in-house” crowd, but my rebuttal to them was that I did not want to waste their money and, frankly, our time. The irony, of course, was that they had spent far more money destroying their manuals than we had charged them for fixing them in the first place. And, we had plenty of clients that wanted to clean up their act and keep it that way, so those that were only interested in a quick fix (either to make their department look good or, in most cases, to satisfy the regulators) didn’t align with our standards as a company anyway.

Unless you work at a publishing company, odds are that you are not good at this. No offense intended; it’s just not what you do as a company. Exacerbating this problem, it’s not seen as something difficult, so it’s low priority. But, as we’ve seen in the last several posts, increased employee engagement, understanding, safety, and profitability await those who take this on. So, getting it right is important.

As promised, I will run you through several of these standards over the course of the next few posts. We don’t provide these “cleaning up” services at Basically, but they are SO important to the effectivity of staff communication that we are taking the time to discuss them here. My advice to you, from over 20 years of providing these exact services to airlines (one of the world’s most heavily regulated industries) is not to try to tackle this on your own. I have worked personally with over 650 airlines and training centers. I’ve never seen a company do it successfully. Not once. While we don’t provide these services, we have close relationships with world experts that do and would be happy to make an introduction on your behalf. It will change your life and how effectively you communicate with your people.