A guide to writing for the world

Much of what we write these days is for publication electronically in some form. Email, text messages, Twitter, social network walls, blog posts, web pages, you name it, we’re writing it.

With so many people writing so much stuff, often in languages that are second to them, it’s amazing everyone understands it all. Maybe that’s a reflection of the flexibility of the structure and syntax of languages like English where you can usually get away with grammar horrors and misspellings yet still gain understanding from your message.

There are plenty of schools of different thought concerning what’s right and wrong in terms of language usage, and what’s appropriate in a business environment. It’s that latter situation where rules, principles and guidelines are likely to be of greater import than the bustling informality of social media interactions where, often, anything goes.

Which is where style guides come into play.

Two guides that I’m familiar with and which are among the best known in modern times are The Associated Press Stylebook in the US, and The Economist Style Guide in the UK. Both of these works, originally intended for journalists’ use, have gained authority and respect over the years as reference tools of choice for correct usage of the different ‘flavours’ of English practised on each side of the Atlantic.

I’ve often wondered how non-native English speakers manage, though, when the authoritative guides to a language seem more about forcing adherence to rigid usage rather than recognizing the fluidity of how the language is actually used in practice by people in different countries around the world. But that’s a topic in itself for discussion another day.

A new style guide is coming next week – The Yahoo! Style Guide, a publication that very firmly states “Learn how to write and edit for a global audience through best practices from Yahoo!.”

The bold text is my emphasis. Can a publication really offer practical advice on how to write and edit English for a global audience without being parochial about the English it demonstrates? And that differentiates it from other style guides?

I’m very keen to see how this guide addresses such a broad remit.

Copy ordered!

(Cross-posted from WCG Common Sense.)

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

  1. David Tebbutt

    People in business want to communicate effectively. Unless they can gather their wits in the first place, then no amount of style is going to rescue them.

    Assuming they have got through the wit-gathering stage successfully, they then don't want the hassle of reading fat style guide books. They'll end up confused and worried. Their focus could easily drift away from what they're trying to write to how their writing will appear to the erudite. What matters is how it appears to their target audience.

    You're right to distinguish between informal 'social' writing and 'business' writing (thankfully, you've avoided 'academic' writing) but it's probably better to encourage people to shed their inhibitions, than to create new ones.

    I've spent the last thirty years or so as a successful writer, writing columns, features, blogs and the odd news story for a variety of audiences in a language that each can understand.

    I intend to spend the rest of my life sharing what I've learnt through workshops, training sessions, presentations and publications.

    The bottom line for your readers, though, is “don't be intimidated by grammatical rules and the like” and “your value is in knowing your subject matter and how it benefits your audience”. If you can speak, then you're ninety percent of the way to being able to write.

  2. BryanPerson

    I'm just glad that the AP finally joined the modern age in adopting the “website” spelling (rather than Web site) that many of us have been using for years!

    (By the way, tried twice to post this comment from my iPad and couldn't. Don't think it's entirely a Disqus thing, because I posted to another blog using Disqus earlier today.)

  3. neville

    Thanks David, good points.

    I agree – I'd much rather see people articulating their ideas and what they think in a natural way than sprucing up their words with the help of things like style guides.

    Maybe the word 'style' is the problem here. It's more than just style, though, isn't it? Respected publications like the AP's and The Economist's are a boon to people whose grasp of English isn't as good as they'd like it to be, or it's not a language they feel wholly fluent in.

    Yahoo's guide is due out on July 6 in the US, later in the month in the UK. I'm still curious to see what it can do.

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