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Writing for the Web

Writing content that is accessible, optimized for search, and otherwise informative and easy to read.

Basic Rules

  1. Numbers: Spell out numbers 1-9, use numerals for 10 and above. E.g. Nine questions, 10 posts.
    Exceptions:
    1. If it’s a range, like 1-9, use numerals.
    2. If the number starts the sentence, spell it out.
  2. Percents: Instead of “%,” use “percent.” E.g. 45 percent.
  3. Capitalization: Capitalize the main nouns and verbs in titles and subtitles (title case). Other words like "the", "and" are lowercase. Capitalize the first word for bullets, checkboxes and radio buttons, and form labels (sentence case).
  4. Commas: Don't use the serial comma in a simple series such as, "red, blue and yellow." Do use one in a complex series like, "The English Department offers doctoral majors in Literature, Second Language Studies, English Language and Linguistics, and Rhetoric and Composition."
  5. Quote marks: Commas and periods go within quote marks.
  6. Spaces: Use one space after a period, not two.
  7. Paragraphs and line breaks: Don’t add extra lines between paragraphs unless they're needed to visually separate sections of content. The website’s programmed styles will create space between paragraphs for you. 
    1. If you don't want the extra space added after a paragraph, you can use a line break instead. Press SHIFT + ENTER to create a line break.
  8. Dashes: Use a dash separated by spaces (this - that). *
  9. Hyphenated modifiers: Generally, fewer hyphens are better, especially if a phrase makes sense without them.  Use a hyphen (dash with no spaces) for compound descriptors. E.g. Radio was invented in the 19th century; your grandfather collects 19th-century radio sets.
  10. Acronyms and abbreviations: Spell out acronyms on the first use. E.g. Open Education Resources (OER).
  11. Books, periodicals and other compositions: Use quotation marks around the titles of books, songs, television shows, computer games, poems, lectures, speeches and works of art. Do not use italics. For journal titles, newspapers, or the Bible, do not use quotation marks or italics.
  12. People's titles: Capitalize people’s titles if they appear before their name, e.g. Professor of English Grace Landrum. Use lowercase if the title is informal, appears without a person’s name or follows a person’s name. E.g. Robin Looft-Wilson, a professor in William & Mary’s Department of Kinesiology.
  13. Academic departments: Capitalize when their proper names are used; don't capitalize when referring to them informally. E.g. "The Department of History fosters a learning environment..." vs. "Find course reserves for classes in the history department... ."
  14. Class year: Include a student's or alumnus' class year after their name on first reference. Don't separate the year with a comma. E.g. Ginger Ambler '88, Ph.D. '06.
  15. Identifying people: When referring to people, only use descriptive terms when they are necessary for conveying meaning. Don't assume a person's age, gender, racial background or abiliity unless they told you and it's ok to share. It's better to stick with people's names.
  16. Diversity: If inventing names, mix them up. Don’t just stick to Anglo-Saxon Jacks and Jills. Same with genders and ages. Use gender-neutral terms and find alternatives to gendered pronouns. Use the singular "they" if you're unsure.
  17. Common tech term spellings:
    1. cellphone
    2. download
    3. e-book
    4. email
    5. hashtag
    6. internet
    7. iPad, iPhone (use IPad or IPhone when the word begins a sentence)
    8. smartphone
    9. website
    10. web page

* Notes on special characters

You may be familiar with special typographical characters used in print. These include smart (curly) quotes, em (—) and en (–) dashes, ellipsis (…), etc. Curly “quotes” do look better than bland straight "quotes". However, these typographic styles are problematic in modern website editors. Perhaps one day the computers will figure out how to bring style back to typography on the web, but until then, we stick with the default keyboard characters for consistency.

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