A Digital Style Sheet
TL;DR: With any formal writing comes a need for consistency. Traditionally style sheets gave writers guidelines to follow when composing documents. Here’s a general approach to a digital style sheet.
Style sheets, or full manuals, offer guidance for uniformity in document design. They detail ways of thinking about organization in the presentation of texts, provide practical guidelines for mechanics and grammar, define appropriate vocabulary and usage, explain how to document sources, and bring a consistency to multiple documents in a series, by an organization, or in an academic discipline. Following a style sheet when writing online will allow writers of digital media to practice clear and consistent expression on digital platforms, like blogs, wikis, and other social media.
Note: For guidelines in citing sources in digital documents, see “Digital Citation.”
No style sheet could ever hope to be the same for all digital platforms. Some approaches, like Wikipedia, have their own house style that all contributors should follow. This style sheet might be best adopted for a blog or other platform that is primarily text-based. However, developing a style guide for any digital document is a good idea to provide both contributors and users a consistent and organized text.
If you are writing in America, use the American English spellings of words. To be consistent, choose a single, current dictionary to reference for all spellings, like Mirriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Avoid the dictionary that’s been sitting on your home bookshelf since you were a child. Language is dynamic and ever-changing, so choose the most current references for the most accuracy. Also, pick a dictionary with the word “college” in the title, as it will contain a more appropriate vocabulary for college writing.
If you use a thesaurus, be sure you look up the synonym in the dictionary before using it. Synonyms often will have distinct connotations and will sometimes be inappropriate for some usages.
Spell out numbers up to 100, like ten or fifty-five. Likewise, large, round numbers should also be spelled out, like ten thousand or one million. If you use a number in the title of a blog post, the numerical form will do, like: “10 Best Practices for Spelling.”
For percentages, use the number followed by “percent,” like 45 percent.
All titles, headings, and subheadings should use a “title case” that makes them consistent. This means:
- Capitalize the first word;
- Capitalize all words except for coordinating conjunctions (FANBOYS: for, and, but, or, yet, so), articles (the, a, an, some), and prepositions (in, under, toward, before, etc.);
- Capitalize the first word after any internal punctuation, like: “Norman Mailer: An American Life.”
Note: See “Writing in the Liberal Arts” for more specifics on presenting titles.
Italicize the titles of books, magazines, periodicals, films, and television shows. Titles of short works — like poems, short stories, essays, and television episodes — should be put in quotation marks.
Only italicize articles if they are part of the title of the text. For example, The Taming of the Shrew, The Atlantic magazine, and the Iliad of Homer. The one exception to this rule are titles of newspapers which do not have the leading article italicized: the New York Times.
When closing quotation marks,
- Commas and periods precede the final quotation (“example.” and “example,”);
- Colons and semicolons follow the final quotation mark (“example”: and “example”;);
- Exclamation points and questions marks follow the final quotation mark unless they are part of the text being quoted.
- Use a serial or “Oxford” comma before the conjunction in a series: bread, cheese, and wine.
Acronyms do not use periods and are pronounced like words:
- AIDS — Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome;
- ASAP — as soon as possible;
- NASA — National Aeronautical and Space Administration;
- WYSIWYG — what you see is what you get.
Abbreviations pronounce each letter and use periods:
- A.D. — anno Domini (in the year of our Lord);
- M.A. — Master of Arts;
- R.N. — Registered Nurse;
- U.S.A. — the United States of America.
If you are unsure, consult the dictionary.
Style manuals often cover usage, like the difference between “that” and “which” and other potentially confusing uses of words and phrases. They give specific rules so that documents remain consistent.
In addition to the general guidelines presented above, writers of digital media should adopt a style manual for usage and stick to it for all of their writing — particularly that done on a single web site or ebook.
Often disciplines, businesses, and organizations will have what’s called a “house style”; i.e., a manual written or adopted by the organization that covers style and usage. Check to be sure which style is most appropriate for your project before you begin writing. Often, your professor will assign a particular style manual for work done in class. Most first-year composition textbooks will contain an adequate style manual for college work.
Whatever you use, practice consistency. Do not mix styles, especially in a single document.
- There are several inexpensive and free style manuals available online, like The Yahoo! Style Guide: Writing for an Online Audience. The Chicago Manual of Style and the APA Stylebook are two of the most commonly used. For guidelines on style and usage, see The National Geographic Style Manual. Much of this document is based on the Medium Style Sheet.