Why Style Guides Are Important

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.

Developing a Style and Voice For your Web Content

Got Tone? Tips for Developing a Writing Style

Developing a writing style that appeals to your readers is an art. The tone of your copy is the key to the success of your marketing strategies. Your returns rest largely on the quality and style of your text. For companies in the healthcare, legal and financial industries, this means their text needs to be clean, clear, concise and competent. In fact, the four Cs are favored by most if not all Fortune 1000 companies. For a company that sells sports tickets or toys, a much lighter, conversational tone is the better option. We’ve had clients express concern about matching their tone when their website is completely toneless. This goes to show that tone is a sensitive and important topic. Here are a few tips for developing a voice for your web content.

Who is your target audience? This is the most important factor. A personal injury attorney who is targeting people who have been injured or lost a loved one needs to use a voice that is strong, compassionate and effectively illustrates their strengths. For example, “Contact us today to speak with a compassionate personal injury attorney who can protect your rights and act as a legal advocate.”

Now, let’s consider a restaurant that makes the best barbeque in the city. Restaurants are part of a leisure market. People dine in their free time using disposable income. To appeal to consumers, we must create a tone that actively promotes their delicious food and the lively ambiance.

“At Judge Bean’s Bar-B-Q, we make the meanest barbeque sauce east of the Mississippi and the best pulled pork ya’ll will ever taste. Stop by for a plate-clearing, finger-licking good time.”

On the other side of the spectrum, a gourmet catering company that uses local produce might need a more conservative tone. For a high-end caterer, we might use a more sophisticated, erudite tone.

“From fresh, tender arugula to locally produced cheese, we partner with local farmers to procure the finest and freshest ingredients. We use the highest-quality products and artisan cooking techniques to produce slow-food for large events.”

There is an entire spectrum of literary tones. I like to think of it like a rainbow. On one end, we have a straight-ahead, no-nonsense corporate tone. On the other, we have zany, edgy, off-the-wall. This means that there are subtle differences in tone that are comparable to the visual differences between teal and blue-green. Once you have the right tone, you’ll know it.

You wouldn’t believe how many content mills suggest the most banal and generic tones. Informative and interesting, sales driven and promotional, light and conversational or educational and informative. These are the options that a mass-market content mill will give you. They might as well as say meaningless and bland, boring and stale or light and fluffy. We’re not talking about comfort food or ice cream. Let’s get real. Don’t be tone deaf. The success of your website depends on the quality and style of your content, so you’ve got to make it good. As up-market copywriters, we collaborate, we work with clients, and we infuse our writing with creativity to match our customers’ goals. That’s why our copy is effective.

To develop the right style and tone, consider who your target market is, what you’re selling and what your goals are. Words represent your company, its personality and its products. That’s why it’s important to have a tone that accurately portrays your company’s strengths. On our own website, we like to have a little bit on fun on your text. For clients, we develop a tone based on their individual needs and goals, which are rarely the same from company to company.

You’re welcome to share your perspective on the challenges of developing the right style and tone for your web content.