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Content Strategy: Fast, Favorite Style Guides for Writing for the Web

By March 11, 2014 No Comments

Meat loaf or meatloaf? As a content strategist at PixelMEDIA, I wrestle with big questions like these on a daily basis.

When I need a quick “right or wrong” decision on critical questions like, “disc or disk…everyone or every one…feweror less?” I have access to countless online style guides. But, nine times out of ten, even when writing for the web, one of my trusty books is simply faster.

Sure, I can type “fewer or less” into the search bar and Google will return “about 281,000 results.” That’s amazing. The number one return is Grammar Girl which does, in fact, answer my question.

In a mere 735 words.

This might not have taken all that much time to read had I not been distracted by the ads running the length of the page (including a video…with music) or by the dozens upon dozens of comments from people who clearly have a lot more time on their hands than I do.

Worse, if I search for “everyone or every one,” Grammar Girl doesn’t even make the top ten search results. So I can’t take comfort in having a reliable, consistent resource. And I don’t really have time to vet all the possible candidates. Or to plow through The Chicago Manual of Style. So I turn to my small stack of guides first.

The Business Style Handbook: An A-to-Z Guide for Writing on the Job (Second Edition)

Helen Cunningham and Brenda Greene
McGraw-Hill


Trust me, this straightforward, compact book will keep you out of a lot of trouble. It includes several chapters on overall style, but its true value lies in the A-Z listing of common terms and usage rules. For example, “fewer, less

Use fewer when referring to things or people that can be counted.The OPEC countries are pumping fewer barrels of oil under the new quotas (barrels can be counted). Use less for quantities that cannot be counted or can be considered as a whole. The OPEC countries are pumping less oil under the new quotas (oil cannot be counted). I had less than $10,000 in my 401(k) account (an amount). The workstation has a life span of less than 24 months (a block of time).

Nicely said in fewer than 88 words. And, really, all I needed to know.

Notice the word “business” in the book’s title. Unlike guides that are written from a journalism perspective, for example, the AP Stylebook,New York Times Manual of Style, and Guardian Style (discussed later), The Business Handbook stays focused on business communication and what I assume are “frequently referenced topics.” If I don’t find the answer here, I move on to more extensive manuals. But I usually find it here quickly. The book is well indexed and includes a bibliography and list of favorite sources. The second edition is available for Kindle Readers.

Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words: A Writer’s Guide to Getting It Right

Bill Bryson
www.broadwaybooks.com

It may not be essential, but I find this this book invaluable (and a lot of fun). It lists hundreds of words that are often mistaken for one another (Granada, Grenadaperpetrate, perpetuate) or that offer different meanings in different contexts (opt, chooseevangelical, evangelistic) or that are simply redundant or pompous (equally as...first and foremost). Not only is it witty, it could save any of us from embarrassing ourselves when we are just trying to sound smart.

(Note: It looks as though a new edition of Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words is being released in May, 2013.)

The Yahoo! Guide: The Ultimate Sourcebook for Writing, Editing, and Creating Content for the Digital World

Yahoo! and Chris Barr
St. Martin’s Griffin

Okay, so the title is not an example of brevity but, at less (not fewer) than $15 on Amazon, this book is an absolute bargain. It’s a bit sprawling and the indexing is spotty (there are a lot of secondary terms tucked under primary terms), but the Yahoo! Guide finally gives writers an authentic online guide on the scope and scale of “traditional” (i.e., print media) style guides such as The Chicago Manual of Style.

It’s organized in a more tutorial format than standard style guides, with chapter headings like Punctuate Proficiently, Apply a Consistent Style for Numbers, and Write Clear User-Interface Text, and it provides lots of “before” and “after” examples, sidebars on topics like error messaging and anti-spam laws, and even some exercises. Because it uses more of a “show” rather than “tell” approach, it invites exploration and would be a good textbook for students and aspiring online writers and editors.

But, more than anything, it provides an authoritative reference that can be held up as the source for “best practices” in online writing and editing. In other words, I don’t have to say, “Because I say so” anymore. I can say, “Because the Yahoo! Style Guide says so.”

The Guardian Style Guide

Okay. I lied, a little bit, about not using online guides. The guardian.co.uk guide is an alphabetized online style guide that ranges from simple spellings (falafel, glasnost, white paper, machiavellian) to witty observances on style and usage, often submitted by readers:

famous, famously
If someone or something actually is famous, there is no need to say so.

From a reader: “Please can you rein in the many writers who insist on dropping the word famously into their copy … as in famously overused, famously redundant or famously not really famous at all. It strikes me that it has become an easy way of indicating that ‘everybody knows this fact but I’m going to include it anyway’.”

Or this important distinction:

Meat Loaf
sings
meatloaf
doesn’t sing.

To quote “the Loaf” himself: “When I see my name spelt with one word, I want to slap and choke people. If you do that, you got to be a moron. It’s on every poster, every album and every ticket as two words. If you spell it as one, you’re an idiot. Bottom line”

The Guardian Style Guide does, of course, tend towards U.K. words and spellings but, being an international newspaper, it includes hundreds of international words and phrases (even American words and phrases). It offers a valuable non-American perspective on language, culture, and world events.

Its Twitter feed @guardianstyle is especially amusing, and often features running dialogues between the editors and readers. Highly recommended.