Ever since the advent of the internet, “experts” have been spewing out guidelines for the new writing style this interactive medium demands. Don’t believe a word of it. Being a diligent copywriter who wants to stay on top of his game, I’ve filed away many such articles over the years. Outside of SEO, I haven’t come across one piece of advice that I hadn’t already learned in college English, journalism and communications classes—and I graduated in 1984—or even earlier in high school.
To illustrate my point, check out this typical treatise, “The 10 Commandments of Internet Writing” by Garth A. Buchholz. Except for his bizarre contention about reading paper versus light, all his advice is sound. However, I defy you to cull from his commandments anything specific to writing—as opposed to layout, font selection and other graphics considerations—that does not also apply to effective copy in any medium. (Please respond if you do; I love to talk writing.) Here’s the simple truth: There’s no such thing as an internet writing style. There is only good copy and bad copy. Whether you read it from a paper page or a computer screen matters not a whit; the same principles apply.
Good copy is clear, concise and speaks to the target audience in their language. The information is organized in a logical flow, not willy-nilly. Important points are placed at the beginning and end of sentences and paragraphs, not buried in the middle (emphatic positioning). Style and grammar are formal or informal as appropriate to the context. Punctuation may be strict or loose depending on the effect desired, but always with ease of understanding trumping other considerations. So don’t sweat it if you’re tasked with coming up with web copy or, heaven forefend, “repurposing” something for web content. Like Gertrude Stein’s rose, good prose is good prose is good prose.
Again, if you disagree, or if you have any thoughts or contentions about writing—from never ending a sentence in a preposition (for you parochial-school students) or whether I should have hyphenated “parochial-school,” to more esoteric matters—I hope you’ll share them with me. In the meantime, think about why Ernest Hemingway’s novels are still frequently checked out from the library while Henry James’s gather dust in the stacks, and let that be your guide to good copywriting in any medium.