Kevin Rocci

Magoosh Speak—A Startup Needs a Style Guide

Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words. —Mark Twain

All of us at Magoosh interact with students somehow. Through mailings, phone calls, e-mails, ad copy, blog articles, support tutoring, Facebook posts, Twitter hashtags, psychic transference, and product descriptions, we all speak to our students on a daily basis.

But with diffuse channels, like these, how do we have any continuity?

What we needed was a manifesto of our values, a treatise of tone and style, a tale of our tribe, a lyrical paradise, a style guide that would be our sonnet of serenade to intoxicate everyone at Magoosh with the audacious notion of inspiring our students to love test prep.

But what does that even mean? No, really?! What am I even talking about?!

I am talking about why we, as a startup, needed to make the Magoosh Style Guide.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. —Elmore Leonard

Startups are submerged in grand soliloquies and lofty inclinations. As they should be! It’s part of the ethos. Values allow us to dream big, carve out a culture, and inspire employees and students alike—but values need anchors.

At Magoosh, we needed to tether our values to reality because ideals alone won’t make it easier to communicate to a non-native English speaker the subtleties of when and how to use “the” and “a” in a sentence or to receive feedback on our English product when students are still learning English.

Say what you mean to say. Sound like yourself. — Kurt Vonnegut

So we began with our core values. Three values stood out as being perfect lightposts for our style guide—Communication > Efficiency, Friendly > Formal, and Accessible > Exclusive.

Communication > Efficiency

…worth 10100 words. Sometimes the best way to communicate an idea is with an image, not text. Show students an image of the new feature or button instead of describing where it is and what it looks like.

Friendly > Formal

Friendly is professional. Don’t worry about sacrificing professionalism for friendliness because a friendly attitude is professional. Treat students with respect, empathize with them, and be honest—that’s the professionalism we all want.

Accessible > Exclusive

Organize your ideas into discrete paragraphs. Break up long paragraphs. Form your thoughts into manageable, discrete units of information. You should not look at what you wrote and dread reading through it. Make it manageable.

Forget your generalized audience…In writing, your audience is one single reader…it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know…and write to that one. —John Steinbeck

What became clear while translating values into a practical guide, though, were their limits. Obvious recommendations for writing didn’t have a home under a value. We met our goal of concision but at the cost of completeness. We needed to cover specifics. How else could we recommend bolding main points or leading with the most important details? So our journey continued deeper into writing’s details to find:

2. Be genuine and honest! Thoughtlessly saying “Great question!” all the time can sound rehearsed or patronizing. Be conscious of what you’re writing and to whom you’re writing.

3. They are students. Magoosh is a place for students—not consumers, users, requesters, or any other bland sterilizing term. Make sure they know that you know that.

7. Talk about something off-topic from time to time. Step out of your “role” and be real. Think of Saturday Night Live when everyone breaks from character and laughs at what is going on. These are wonderful moments to watch in the audience. Replicate this “realness” and authenticity in your writing whenever possible. Break down the fourth wall!

Never use a long word where a short one will do.

If it is possible to cut out a word, always cut it out.

Never use the passive where you can use the active.

—George Orwell

Ah! The light of day! We ultimately emerged with a guide that helps anyone at Magoosh write to students. Inspired by the ideals that pulse through our daily routines, Magooshers can have something tangible to look at when they have something to say.

The final touches to the guide—resources that inspired aspects of our style guide and also details we couldn’t put any better—made up for all the gaps a two-page guide invariably will have. Innovative as a last resort as Charles and Ray Eames would say.

I see but one rule: to be clear. —Stendhal

A style guide provides just the right amount of structure and guidance while allowing the diversity of each Magoosher to flourish. The goal was not to wrangle, but to free each person to write in their own voice, as themselves, while still representing the core values that make Magoosh what it is. We needed to know how to speak as individuals and to speak as one… and that is why we now have a style guide.