Internet Writing Style Guides! Who Needs ‘Em?

style guides

Courtesy of MConnors

If there’s one thing that irks and jerks me, it’s style guides for Internet writing. Ugh. Just the words style and guide sound terrible together. Basically, it means rules and more rules when you’re trying to be creative. Compared to more sophisticated forms of writing, Internet content is more like backroom poker. Every publication, every website and every content mill has its own house rules. When you get down to it, every writer has his or her own style as well, and sometimes they conflict.

Types of Style Guides

One of the problems with style guides is they aren’t always specific or consistent. Maybe only professional freelancers know that specs can change during a project, leading to mayhem as you’re forced to redo work because the client suddenly changed their style guidelines.

We know that we are rogue writers, but we break the rules for effect. We also know which rules we’re breaking, at least generally. Here’s the deal with style guides, particularly style guides for Internet writing. While the Chicago Manual is great, it’s not the thing to use for the web. Neither are the APA (American Psychological Association) or MLA (Modern Language Association) guides, which are strictly for scientific papers with fancy words and reports with citations, which are meaningless on most of the Internet. For practical web writing, which we do, less is definitely more.

Style Guides for the Internet

Writing for the web is largely about brevity, which is one reason why style guides for the web don’t use the Oxford or serial comma in lists (as in the comma with the and). It saves space. If you’re insistent about following the rules instead of developing your own, start with the Microsoft Manual of Style. Another one to look out for is the 2010 Yahoo! Style Guide, which was developed with a CNET editor and covers all types of electronic content.

For most web writing, we follow AP conventions. You can find a simplified AP guide in Perdue’s OWL Language Lab. These rules also apply to press releases and other important content types that are much different than blog posts and casual communications. When in doubt, you can generally rely on AP rules and good common sense for capitalization and grammar. If the writing is good, a proper abbreviation or silly convention really won’t make a difference. That’s why we follow the rules, but never to the point where it compromises our style or the quality of the writing. That’s by far the most important part. What style guide do you use?


If you don’t want to buy a book, check out Hubspot’s guide to Internet writing. It’s free, but be prepared to receive loads of marketing material.

Liz Smith

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