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Your final task is to check your spelling, grammar, punctuation and consistency. This is called ‘copyediting’. Preferably, get an experienced copyeditor to do it for you.
Word Nerds editing and proofreading blog includes an informative description of copyediting. In a nutshell, a copyeditor ensures that the author’s text is conveyed clearly to the reader – accurate, no contradictions, a logical flow, no variation in presentation (ie consistency).
The way copyeditors maintain consistency is by creating and then adhering to a ‘house style’ sheet.
Richard Nordquist of grammar.about.com defines house style as:
The specific usage and editing conventions followed by writers and editors to ensure stylistic consistency in a particular publication or series of publications.
Typically, a writer or editor will keep a record of both overall spelling and punctuation rules as well as specific instances of the spelling or punctuation of a word (eg learnt not learned, or email not e-mail). These records are called ‘style guides’ or ‘style sheets’, although you may see them referred to by other similar names.
Examples of both as used to set the style for this website can be found at the bottom of this article.
The golden rule throughout is consistency. Once you decide on a usage, stick to it. Readers find inconsistency irritating and that can sow the seed of doubt about the integrity of your website.
- ecommerce, not e-commerce or eCommerce
- all numbers as digits (eg 15, not fifteen)
- single quotation marks
- ie, not i.e.
- UK spelling, not US (eg labour, not labor).
Hyphens and dashes
A trickier inconsistency to spot is the confusion between hyphens (-) and dashes, the longer en (–) or em (—) rules:
- Unspaced hyphens are used to join modifiers in adjectival phrases (eg a large-scale factory, not the same without the hyphen).
- Spaced en rules are used in this website for parenthetical dashes – used like this – and in number ranges (eg 60–90 minutes).
- We don’t use em rules. Some publishers use unspaced em rules as dashes.
Don’t forget to check for the consistency of visual aspects, such as headings and subheadings, whether text runs on from these or starts on a new line, font size and colour, bold and italic, and how captions are displayed.
This heading has an initial cap only (aka ‘sentence case’)
This Heading Has Initial Caps Throughout
THIS HEADING IS ALL CAPS
Tips on headings
‘Title case’ uses all initial caps, except for prepositions, articles and conjunctions (eg for, to; a, an, the; and, but). We use this for titles.
Jakob Nielsen recommends having no more than 4 heading weights. This article has a title and 3 heading levels = 4.
Users find it easier to read mixed-case headings than all lower case or all upper case. The human brain scans these more easily.
Keep your headings factual and avoid being too clever. Jakob Nielsen: ‘Do not use clever or cute headings since users rely on scanning to pick up the meaning of the text. Limit the use of metaphors, particularly in headings.’
Another minefield is how you punctuate bulleted and numbered lists. Our view is shown in the extract from our house style. It all depends on what is in the list. Simple words or phrases could have no punctuation after them, or a comma – apart from the last one, which always has a full point. Full sentences should be punctuated as normal – initial cap, full point. The stem of the list may be followed:
- by the completion of the sentence,
- by another completion,
- by the final completion.
In this case, we use lower-case initial word and commas as separators, but some people choose to use semi-colons. Just be consistent.
Writing for the web differs from writing for print
Some traditional rules adhered to when writing for print have changed when writing for the web.
Online readers have short attention spans.
So web writing requires:
- short sentences and paragraphs,
- text should be broken up by:
- Be more conversational – this ties in with avoiding the passive tense (apart from in headings for SEO purposes).
- Small punctuation gets lost – so minimise it, unless it improves readability. Avoid semicolons, colons, and too many commas in a sentence, unless in a list. Limit hyphens to those that aid clarity.
- Users find it easier to read numbers as numerals.
- Remember that users will read your website content in no particular order. So do not number illustrations.
- Make text ‘left-aligned’ (ragged right edge), not ‘justified’ (problematic due to lack of automatic hyphenation) or centred (looks tacky).
- When selecting fonts remember that they depend on users having the fonts installed on their computer. You are better off using commonly used fonts.
Your website designer may hate you for saying this, but always place readability ahead of graphic design.
Some other web-writing recommendations:
- Use abbreviations only after the term has first been spelt out in full for every screen page.
- Use bold rather than italic for emphasis. Nielsen recommends emphasising about three times as many words as for print.
- Do not underline text – reserve underlining for hyperlinks.
- Avoid exclamation marks, the calling card of the amateur.
And finally, don’t forget to proofread text once it has been published to your website. Mainly, you will be checking the onscreen layout and that all the copyedited text is in place, but also keeping an eye out for mistakes. Once again, if you get someone else to do it, they are more likely to spot your original mistakes.
The Society for Editors and Proofreaders has a Directory of professional copyeditors and proofreaders with their specialist subject areas.