In high school and college, we were all taught to use particular style guides and citations. For most of us, MLA was our constant companion. For others, APA became their frenemy. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who has used Chicago, but I’m sure someone somewhere is familiar with it. On the other hand, many of us were avid creative writers. Significantly, very few of us were probably taught how to write on the web.
No matter what kind of writing you prefer (I loved both), you’ve developed habits around them. You religiously cite your sources, you’ve developed a particular tone and voice that give life to your essays and stories, and you abide by strict grammar rules. While none of these are bad habits, it’s important you find a balance between them when writing on the internet.
Essentially, writing for the internet is both vastly different and uniquely similar to both academic and creative writing. So what habits should you abandon? Which should you adopt?
As both a creative writer and an academic one, I’ve had to learn how to find the right mix of both styles. That’s why I’ve compiled a comprehensive web writing style guide to help you learn how to write well on the internet. Keep reading to learn how!
What You Should Know About Web Writing Style Guide
Leave the Academic Writing Behind
Tone and Voice
Remember when you would write those essays, trying to use the biggest words, the most complex sentences, and the most comprehensive paragraphs? Don’t do that on the web.
In general, your sentences should be simple. Essentially, try not to write above a fifth-grade level. You never know who will be reading your articles, so you need to keep it simple and easy to understand, rather than sophisticated.
So how exactly do you do this?
- Keep your sentences under twenty words. This will help you to remember to write simple sentences, especially if you aren’t in the habit of doing so.
- Use a lot of transition words and phrases. These help readers glide from one sentence to the next without giving a choppy feel to your writing.
- Last but not least, keep your paragraphs short. I wrote some academic essays where paragraphs (double spaced, Times New Roman, pt. 12 font…) went on for a page and a half. Don’t do this when writing on the web! As a rule of thumb, paragraphs should never be more than six lines. If they are one or two lines, that’s fine too. Simply put, you want enough “white space” between text blocks to help with readability.
When I was an undergrad, I avoided contractions, questions, and casual language like the plague. However, when you write on the web, questions engage the reader, while contractions and casual language make the article more conversational. Don’t be too casual, however, especially if you are writing about a serious subject.
Moreover, personal pronouns are okay. Using pronouns like “you” and “your” will help you avoid passive voice and remain conversational. However, for some articles, you will want to steer clear if “me”, “myself”, and “I”. This is especially true if you are representing an entire company or organization. Only use those pronouns if the article is published under your name.
In the end, you will have to find the right balance of professionalism for your article depending on the topic. However, in general, you want to keep readers engaged, so relax with your strict grammar standards… but only a little.
Every student in high school and college was taught to use MLA or APA formatting, citing sources religiously. However, don’t use academic citations when writing on the web. I’ll let that sink in for a moment.
But what about plagiarism?! you ask. It’s still bad. Don’t plagiarise.
Here’s the thing: when writing on the web, you want to create content that’s as original as possible. If you do find a source you want to cite in your article, simply put a link in your anchor text, like this. Think of these anchor texts as the citation format in a web writing style guide, just as you would in MLA. However, when using other websites’ material, try not to use direct quotes. While it might be okay every once in a while, get in the habit of rewording text so it sounds original and simply link to their site. Be original.
I know it’s hard to leave behind that habit. Believe me, I used MLA for years and it wasn’t easy to give up. In my academic essays, I based my content on my research. When writing on the web, however, allow research to only support small points in your content.
Be Creative… But Not Too Creative
Creativity is a wonderful thing, and you want some measure of creative language in your articles. For example, say you are writing an article about publishing. You could title it “How to Publish Your Novel” or you could spice up the title a little with “Publishing Your Novel: What Agents Don’t Tell You.” Which sounds more appealing? Which would you rather read?
Therefore, a measure of creativity will help to make your articles more appealing to readers. Use creative writing to add that level of interest to your pieces, but don’t go overboard. You still want to maintain a clear, level tone and voice that give you a level of professionalism.
When you are writing a short story, it’s okay to use a fragment here and there, especially when characters are in conversation. Moreover, you have the ability to break some grammar rules for the sake of tone and voice, especially when it comes to character development.
For example, in my unpublished novel, In a Moment, I play with improper grammar in order to create a sense of suspense:
“The noises grew louder as they grew closer
And then the door flew open.”
I can probably count about five errors in those lines alone. But is this bad creative writing? No. If you deliberately break grammatical rules, it’s okay. It’s when you accidentally break them that we have a problem. However, only break grammar rules in creative writing, not on the internet.
It’s important that no matter the subject you are writing about, you maintain a professional tone and voice. You want to sound like you are the expert on the subject and have an authoritative opinion. If you use ungrammatical language, you may come across as an unreliable source.
Who doesn’t love a good story? Often, telling a little story in your article can improve readability by breaking up that bulky text. If appropriate, a personal experience or an example can be a great addition to an article. However, don’t go overboard. Unless the subject of your article is someone’s experience, such as an interview, steer clear of too much storytelling.
For example, say you are writing an article about how to publish a novel. This how-to article’s main purpose isn’t to tell them about your experience or even of someone else’s. Therefore, stick to informative information. If a story or experience will add to the article, you can include it if it’s brief.
Even if your article was titled “How I Published My Novel… And the Mistakes I Made,” your subject will obviously be more about your experiences, but you still want it to be informative first and foremost. No one is going to read an article online that doesn’t benefit them in some way.
Finding the Balance
In the end, you need a healthy mix of creative writing skills and academic ones for an optimal web writing style guide. So pull out your laptop and start that blog. When you throw everything you know together and format it correctly, your hodgepodge of knowledge will reflect in your awesome writing!