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Basic Tips When Writing for the Web

The following are best practices that Infopeople has developed over the years. We use these as guidelines when editing web pages as well as descriptions for online and on-ground courses and webinars. These are recommendations only; your mileage (and sometimes even ours!) may vary!

  • Things people look for on the screen or keyboard should be in bold. Example: "Click the Submit button." Another example: "Press <Delete>."
  • If you want someone to type something, put that in bold italics. Example: "Click in the Text Box and type Your Name."
  • Use brackets < > around keys, except when instructing the user to use keyboard shortcuts. Examples: "Press <Enter>" but "Press Ctrl+A or Alt+Tab."
  • Put titles of journal articles in "quotes"; italicize newspaper, magazine, and book titles. Exception: If you are linking to an article the link takes the place of the quotes. Example: How Kids Learn, Library Journal, p.23, May 2014. (Using quotes and linking is redundant.)
  • Unless you are creating a webliography or bibliography, link the appropriate text to the website and don't include the URL within parentheses after the link. That being said, if a URL is referenced in an online course reading, make sure to include its complete info in the course's Resources File.
  • For a webliography, bibliography, or a Supplementary Material list in an online course: Make the title of a website the link (notin bold), and then follow with an unlinked URL within parentheses and do not include the "http://":
    Example: Name of Site as Link (name-of-site.com)

    Note: Within the parentheses we omit the "http://" part of the URL.

  • For a Resources File for an online course, our format is as follows:
    • First line: placed flush left, with the title of a website linked to the website
    • Second line: indented, with an unlinked URL, without parentheses and without the "http://"
    • Third line: also indented, annotation, if any

    Example of format for Resources File:

    example of resources file format

  • Avoid "telling" people where something is, but instead offer the information in a useful context. Examples: Do not say "Yahoo's URL is yahoo.com," or "Their website is here." Rather, say: "Yahoo is a great source for ..."
  • Periods and commas are always inside quotes.
    Colons and semicolons are always outside quotes.
    Placement of a question mark depends on the context of the sentence.
  • In a series, always use a comma before "and" (or any of the other conjunctions: or, but, for, nor, yet, so). Example: "A, B, and C." Another example: "I can offer you tea, coffee, milk, or soda."
  • Capitalize subtitles. Example: "Writing for the Web: Basic Tips."
  • Capitalize first letter of the first word in bulleted lists.
  • Do not use ALL CAPS for emphasis; it's LIKE SHOUTING at someone. Instead, use bold or bold italic.
  • Use the following spelling and capitalization:
    • web, website, webinar, webcam, webliography, webmaster (but "web page" is two words)
    • homepage (don't capitalize "h" in "home")
    • database
    • e-book
    • e-reader
    • email
    • Internet
    • right-click
    • double-click
    • drop-down list
    • on-ground
    • online
    • makerspace
    • wi-fi

Recommended Usage Tips

To help provide consistency in spelling and grammar, Infopeople recommends the following stylistic conventions, both on the website and in other publications.

Library-specific conventions: Unless specifically referring to librarians, use the more general term "library staff." Use the name of the library as displayed on their website. Use the term "customers" instead of "patrons." Unless specifically referring to public libraries, use "facilities" or "service points" instead of "branches."

Abbreviations and acronyms: In general, omit periods from initialisms: ALA, CLA, PDA, URL, but do use periods in U.S. and U.N. Use U.S. as an adjective and United States as a noun. Example: "She's going to visit the U.S. territories of Guam and American Samoa before returning to the United States."

Addresses: Some web addresses still require "www," but many do not. The best practice is to check any web address to see if it works without the "www." Since the "http://" part of a URL does not have to be typed into a browser address box, it no longer needs to be included in the address. So when referring to the Infopeople website, the address is simply "infopeople.org."

Dates: Month and year: September 2006 (no comma). If writing a specific date, use Month day, year. Example: September 1, 2013. Avoid using ordinals when writing dates. Correct: "Her birthday is on April 4." Incorrect: "April 4th."

Ellipses: The ellipsis (plural ellipses) is the mark that indicates the omission of quoted material, as in "Brevity is ... wit." Although most style manuals prefer the use of spaces between the periods, the preferred use in electronic communications is to not use spaces between the periods, since line-breaks can be unpredictable. Do place a space before the ellipsis and another after. The ellipsis itself is three periods (always); it can appear next to other punctuation, including an end-of-sentence period (resulting in four periods). Use four only when the words on either side of the ellipsis make full sentences.

Gender: Avoid the use of he, she, his, or her unless gender is essential to meaning. Also avoid the use of "he or she," or "his or her" if possible. Do not use "s/he" or "his/her." A plural construction often solves problems: "Donors may pay by credit card if they so choose." Be careful not to mix singular and plural. Incorrect: "Every student has their preference." Correct: "All students have their preferences." Use "chair" rather than chairman, chairwoman, or chairperson.

Hyphens: A compound is hyphenated when it comes before the noun, but not after it. Examples: "She directs their computer-assisted reference services." "Almost all our services are computer assisted." "He lives in off-campus housing." "His home is off campus." "She is a well-respected professor." "Professor Frye is well respected." In headings, only the first part is capitalized. Example: "First-time Visitors"

Indefinite articles: Words starting with a pronounced "h," long "u" or "eu" take the article "a," not "an." Examples: a hotel, a historic study, a euphonious word, a URL; but an honor, an heir.

Numbers: Avoid beginning a sentence with a number that is not written out. (Exception: you can begin a sentence with a date: 1997 was a very good year for owls.) Numerals one through nine should be written as words; 10 and above should be written as numerals. Exceptions include unit and monetary values, scores, percentages, and decimal fractions, all of which may be indicated with numerals.

Plurals: The only plural nouns that take "'s" are abbreviations with more than one period and single letters: M.B.A.'s; R.N.'s; A's and B's; x's and y's. Example: "Berkeley awards more Ph.D.'s to women and minorities than does Harvard."

Acronyms, hyphenated coinages, and numbers used as nouns (either spelled out or as numerals) add "s" (or "es") to form the plural. Exception: an acronym ending in the letter "s": W-2s; 747s; 1980s; wi-fis; follow-ups; sixes and sevens; but SOS's.

Possessives: Plural nouns ending in "s" add only an apostrophe. Examples: the horses' food, the VIPs' entrance, states' rights. Singular nouns ending in "s" add an "'s" to form the possessive (except when two or more sibilants precede the apostrophe). Examples: campus's, The Times's, James's (but with two or more silibants: Kansas', Moses').

Quotation marks: Use quotation marks to indicate a citation or direct quotation. Place commas and periods inside the closing quotation mark; colons and semicolons go outside. Placement of a question mark depends on the meaning: Does it apply to the part quoted or to the whole sentence? Exception: If you have a long, many-lined quote, you can set it indented on both right and left, as a blockquote, and then you omit the quotation marks.

Commonly Misused Words

affect, effect: "To affect" means (1) to influence, change or produce an effect; (2) to like to do, wear or use; or (3) to pretend. "To effect" means to accomplish, complete, cause, make possible or carry out.

its, it's: This one is easy but, nevertheless, often misused. "Its" is the possessive form of the pronoun "it." Example: "The group decided that its rules were too strict." "It's" is a contraction for "it is" or "it has." Example: "It's a requirement that each department have its own chair." Tip: A quick way to check if you've used the correct version is to read the sentence back to yourself, inserting "it is" in place of "it's" or "its" to determine if it still makes sense.

lie, lay: The verb "to lie" (indicating a state of reclining) does not take a direct object: "I lie down." Its past tense is "lay." Example: "I lay down." Its past perfect tense is "have lain." Example: "I have lain down all day." And its present participle is "lying." Example: "I am lying down; I was lying down." The verb "to lay" is an action verb and takes a direct object. Example: "I lay the book down." Its past tense is "laid." Example: "I laid the book down." Past perfect is "have laid." Example: "I have laid the book down." Its present participle is "laying." Example: "I am laying the book down; I was laying the book down." The verb "to lie" (as in to speak an untruth) takes the forms lied, have lied, and lying.

login, logon, logoff: As a noun or adjective make one word, but as a verb, use "log in," "log on," and "log off." Example: "Please log in to your account using your login name."

that, which: "That" heads a restrictive clause; "which" heads a descriptive clause. Note the difference in meaning between these two sentences: "The Navy is mothballing all of its ships that are rusty" (the only ships being mothballed are the rusty ones). "The Navy is mothballing all of its ships, which are rusty" (all of the Navy's ships are rusty, and all are being mothballed). If the clause can be removed without changing the meaning of the sentence, the word to use is "which."

their, there, or they're: "Their" is the possessive form of the pronoun "they." It always describes a noun. "There" is an adverb meaning "that location." It is sometimes used with the verb "to be" as an idiom. "They're" is a contraction of "they are."

Examples:
Their cat has fleas. (possessive)
I put the cat's collar right there. (location)
There are five prime numbers less than 10. (idiom)
They're 1, 2, 3, 5, and 7. (contraction)

then vs. than: "Then" refers to a place in time, but "than" is used to signal a comparison or express an exception. There's a mnemonic for one word of this pair: "Then is When."

Examples:
First we'll go to the library; then we'll go to the shopping mall.
Visiting the library is more fun than going shopping.
No one other than you would rather read a book than buy a new scarf.

your, you're: "Your" is the possessive form of the personal pronoun "you." "You're" is a contraction of "you are." Examples: Your books are overdue. You're going to pay your fine when you return the books. Tip: A quick way to check if you've used the correct version is to read the sentence back to yourself, inserting "you are" in place of "you're" or "your" to determine if it still makes sense.

Attribution

All material on the Infopeople website, as well as Infopeople instructional materials, is released under a Creative Commons non-commercial share alike license. When using materials from the Infopeople website, we appreciate the use of the following credit statements.

  • Online/on-ground course material: "This material is taken from an Infopeople course taught by <instructor name> in <date (use month and year course was taught)>. Infopeople [infopeople.org] is supported by the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services under the provisions of the Library Services and Technology Act, administered in California by the State Librarian. Infopeople materials are covered by a Creative Commons 4.0 Non-commercial Share Alike license. Any use of this material should credit the funding source."
  • Webinars: "This material is taken from an Infopeople webinar presented on <date> by <presenter name>. Infopeople [infopeople.org] is supported by the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services under the provisions of the Library Services and Technology Act, administered in California by the State Librarian. Infopeople materials are covered by a Creative Commons 4.0 Non-commercial Share Alike license. Any use of this material should credit the funding source."
  • Web content: "This material was created for the Infopeople Project [infopeople.org], supported in part by the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services under the provisions of the Library Services and Technology Act, administered in California by the State Librarian. Infopeople materials are covered by a Creative Commons 4.0 Non-commercial Share Alike license. Any use of this material should credit the funding source."

Sources consulted:

  • Usage notes from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. 2000 -- bartleby.com/61/
  • The Berkeley Editorial Style Guide -- identity.berkeley.edu/downloads/ucb_editorial_style.pdf
  • UCLA Dictionary of Style -- www.ucla.edu/cwc/graphics/UCLAStyle.pdf

Please send questions or comments to Eileen O'Shea (eileen at infopeople.org). This page was adapted from material originally developed by Carole Leita for Infopeople. Last updated June 20, 2014.