Keeping Content in Style

When I first began my marketing communications career, my editor threw the book at me. It was a small white publication called “The Elements of Style” by William Strunk and E.B. White.

As a young know-it-all, I naturally bristled every time I eyed the neat little book on my desk. In fact, it probably took at least a month for me to even acknowledge its presence. Ultimately, though, I learned to love the prissy admonitions of Messrs. Strunk and White (for example, “Clever. This word has been greatly overused; it is best restricted to ingenuity displayed in small matters.”). Their guidelines became my rules of the road. I knew as long as I adhered to them, I’d avoid my editor’s notorious red ink.

If you’re editing Web content, you’ve probably become far too familiar with your word processing program’s change-tracking tool. There’s no denying that editing others’ writing is often a time-consuming job. Most frustrating is repeatedly correcting simple stylistic errors about which you’ve counseled the writer more than once.

The answer may be to learn from my career history and throw a book at your writers — or at least a style guide. Style guides establish basic rules for writers and help make the editing process less painful.

Your style guide need not be book length or as comprehensive as the Strunk and White version. Here are a few guidelines you may want to include.

Get the important words right. Is it I.B.M., IBM, or International Business Machines? With a style guide, you can let writers know exactly how to refer to often-used words (such as the name of the organization). Also, let writers know what must be accompanied by a trademark, service mark, or copyright symbol.

Agree on a style. One writer’s Website should not be another’s Web site. (My editors at ClickZ tell me it’s the latter.) The point is, agree on a standard style guide and stick to it. Possibilities include “The Chicago Manual of Style,” “The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law,” the if-you-can-afford-it “Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications,” or the yet-to-be widely accepted “Wired Style.” (I’m told Wired’s non-hyphenated “email” continues to fuel debate in cubicles across the nation.) You can also write your own if you must. Just make sure there’s consistency.

Set word-count limits. We all know writers who can wax prosaic on even the most arcane topic. Though long-winded text may be acceptable for doctoral theses, the Web is kinder to writers who can synthesize their thoughts. In fact, it is said that most Web readers become highly agitated if forced to scroll beyond four screens of information. Although I don’t subscribe to the rule of keeping copy within the confines of a single Web page, there is merit in setting per-page word-count limits for your writers. Generally, 1,000 words are plenty for a single page. After that, writers should become familiar with the wonderful world of hyperlinking.

State your purpose. Be clear with writers about the purpose of your site. If it’s not a site for the stream of consciousness ramblings of a college sophomore, let them know up front (and if it is, let me know so I won’t visit). Your best bet is to provide the writer with a clear statement about the communications objectives of the site, your target audience, and the actions you expect from Web visitors.

Establish a personality. Web writing begs to have a personality. Yes, you can be formal, but you can also establish a conversation with readers in this nontraditional medium. If your site leans toward informality, let writers know a looser style is acceptable. Better yet, direct them to a page on your site that truly reflects its style.

Guard against plagiarism and other unpleasant problems. Ensure writers give credit where it is due. This is especially important on the Web where the source of the pilfered words may be just one click away. Also, set a policy for whether writers should deep-link into sites (linking to interior pages within a site). The verdict is still out on this practice, so let writers know your organization’s stance.

Post your rules of the road. Once established, style guidelines need to be readily accessible on your organization’s Web site or intranet. Just sending an email to writers isn’t sufficient. Remember, these are the rules that will help increase the productivity of your writers and decrease the stress level of those in the editorial chair.

Related reading