So you’re going to a party. You’re digging around in your closet, a flurry of clothes tossed aside in a hurricane of rejection. You want to look just right—that perfect balance between looking great and not trying to hard. And you wish, just for a moment, that a magical guide appeared in your closet that told you exactly what to wear—the perfect ensemble for the occasion.
Okay, well, this may sound more like a tween neurotically obsessing about what to wear for her first school dance, deciding what your writing style should be for your website takes just as much thought.
Every organization that maintains a website on this earth as a style guide for their employees. Yahoo! has one. Duke University has one. IBM has one. And of course, there are the big ones—The Chicago Manual of Style, the Modern Languages Association Manual of Style and the Associated Press Style Book—that set standards for academic writing and journalism (in the U.S.).
If you’ve ever wondered why some people capitalize everything in the title (except the small words, like a and the) and others only capitalize the first word—it’s because of the style manual they’re using.
But let’s be real. Most people operating their own website don’t need to be versed in the nuances of grammar, they just need to be consistent. To that end, it’s a good idea to create your own style sheet. This will help you focus your writing and make sure that your content is consistent.
First things first: Let’s look at voice
Voice creates tone, or the general feeling people have when they read your content.
- Are you an authority? Then borrow from journalistic and academic standards and stay away from “I,” and “You.” It’s all third person, creating the feeling that the author isn’t considering what effect the information presented has on the reader.
- Are you there to help? Then “you” is a good idea. This engages the reader and says, “Hey, I know you’re here.”
- Is it all about you? If your site simply promotes you and what you do, then “I” is your pronoun. Though websites like SimplyBrad.com (Brad Pitt’s site) are written mostly in third person. Why? Because they don’t want fans to feel like he’s doing the writing. This is okay if you’re a big-name star. If you’re not, it’s a bit pretentious to write your personal site in the third person, as if you have a staff.
- Do you have a mix of content? If you want some of your content to feel more personal and some to feel more authoritative, organize your website appropriately. Don’t mix the two together in the same section.
Voice is used in interesting ways. Consider UK’s Government Digital Services (GDS) style guide as an example. Notice the GDS has chosen to use a lot of you, creating the feeling that the government is there to serve you. (Even the IRS uses you, though most of us don’t really think they’re there to help…but, their writing certainly wants to make us feel like they’re a friendly, helpful organization.)
Think about jargon
A lot of industries have long lists of specialized terms that the average reader doesn’t immediately grasp. Sometimes, we get so comfortable with these specialized terms that we don’t even notice them when they appear.
Take this article from PCMag as an example. Here’s a sentence: “Microsoft said that 38 percent of the 50 launch titles will be exclusive to the Xbox One, while 37 percent are brand-new IP.” Though the voice is largely journalistic, PCMag doesn’t bother to define “IP” for the reader. They assume that their particular audience is well-versed in that term, which means they’re likely unconcerned about attracting readers outside that niche. You can see how style choices relate to marketing decisions.
The great big gray area
It may surprise how particular grammar really is. As an example, take a peek at the website for the Harvard Law Review. Here’s an example of one of their sentences: “This Article is the first to identify racial capitalism as a systemic phenomenon and to undertake a close examination of its causes and consequences.”
So, you’ll probably notice more than one thing, including the interesting fact that article is capitalized even though it’s not a proper title. This doesn’t mean that Harvard screwed up. It’s a style choice they made. In the PCMag sentence above, you’ll notice that percent is spelled out, where the GDS style guide instructs their employees to use the symbol.
You’ll notice this throughout GDS’s style guide as well. Certainly, some sites write U.S.A. and others use USA. Neither is right. Neither is wrong.
What to do about the grammar gray area?
Just be consistent. Look at the writing styles of website’s and your industry and see if you can come up with rules. If you’re doing general web writing a copy of the Yahoo! style guide is a good addition the reference library.
And that’s the thing to remember. Style guides address the gray areas. Certainly, you should keep an eye on good punctuation and grammar—we all agree on that. A style guide simply creates consistency and helps you focus on how best to write for your reader and fill your purpose.
Why does it matter?
If you address these questions early, it will save you from a lot of rewriting. Choosing a tone that doesn’t fit your product or intention can lead to pages of rewriting and reworking, which your users will notice. Inconsistency in grammar, punctuation and style will not go unnoticed. In fact, it often makes a website (and those behind it) seem unprofessional or sloppy.
So, like that tween picking out the outfit that will make or break her first dance, take the time to really think about content styling. There’s never a second chance to make a first impression.