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The web content style guide – review


Title: The Web Content Style Guide
Authors: Gerry McGovern, Rob Norton and Catherine O’Dowd
Publisher: Pearson Professional Education Financial Times Prentice Hall, 2002
Format: Paperback, 246 pp
Price: £18.00
ISBN: 0273656058

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The Web Content Style Guide aims to fulfil several functions for the writer or editor of online content, and it succeeds convincingly.

This is an easy-to-use reference work giving examples of good practice in the online layout of text, and providing explanations of technical and e-business terms. There are also the clarifications of common problem areas of spelling, grammar and punctuation, and the distinctions between US and UK English, that you would find in a standard textual style guide. Quoting the advice of George Orwell and Samuel Johnson, and illustrating some common issues with examples, the book lays out concise and effective principles for clear writing of any kind. But the meat of the book is in it's attention to what is special about online content.

How should you write for the Web?
The authors concentrate on why web writing should differ in style from other print media: principally because online readers scan for information. Enabling and rewarding this scanning are the primary duties of online editors and writers. And this book repeatedly emphasises that people who visit websites are "readers"” rather than "users": visitors need to be satisfied by their reading experiences before they will be engaged to buy, interact or respond in any other way.

Reading this, you become painfully aware of how easily you can lose the attention, and so the visits, of web readers.

There is also a lot of sensible and practical advice here on accessibility and ease of use: for instance, warnings against excessive capitalisation, splash pages and long downloads, and recommendations of clarity, integrity, effective navigation, headings and short paragraphs.

Editors may take issue with a few points where they have made their own different decisions when forming a house style, but in general the examples are convincing and appropriate. More importantly, they reflect what is largely common practice. Web readers are already familiar with certain standards of page-layout, navigation and textual style, and that they will leave a site that has an unusual layout, or that misleads them.

Who is this book for?
The Style Guide is probably of most use to a relatively inexperienced creator of online content, because the stylistic tips and examples are interspersed with reassuring notes on bits, bytes, bricks and clicks, and other jargon, and the introduction lays out firm principles to work from. It will also be very useful for those who know a lot about the technical or commercial side of an online business, but need a grounding set of principles to standardise their content and increase its effectiveness. Writers of offline content who are moving online will find this a valuable resource for finding out not just how, but why, they need to change a few habits.

The Web Content Style Guide was an unusual book to review, as it’s not often that you read a reference book from cover to cover. I’m glad I did. Any reader will find reliable principles here and guidance founded on practical insights. These will go a long way towards producing effective and consistent content.


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