Writing for the Digital Age
This email originally appeared in the January 10th edition of The Scribble, KYC's weekly marketing newsletter. You can subscribe to The Scribble at the top of this page.
A few months ago, I syndicated an article I wrote for TheScribble to LinkedIn Pulse. It ended up being one of the more popular pieces I’ve published to Pulse in a while, garnering a good amount of views and likes, and even some comments. One of the comments in particular really caught my attention: “Hey Kevin, I am really interested in the subject you are discussing, but the article is painful to read for me as a former English major: missing punctuation and bulky run-on type sentences get readers lost. If you can proof it and polish up some stylistics, it could be a great piece!”
My first thought was, “how did this happen?” Every Scribble article is proofed by at least one KYCer in addition to the person who wrote it. For this particular piece, I believe it actually had two proofs. Did three of us really miss punctuation and run-on sentences?
Second thought: was I just criticized for using run-on sentences with what many would call a run-on sentence?
Anyway, worried that I was totally missing something, I shared the article with a few other people and asked for their opinion. No one could spot any missing punctuation. A few said there were a couple sentences that could potentially be considered a run-on sentence, but that using long sentences in those instances worked stylistically given their surroundings.
I kept thinking about the comments for a few days, and also thinking deeper about how writing has changed so much since I was in college. The change really came about as digital publishing and content matured over the years. The democratization of publishing led to a shift in writing standards and expectations.
Think about how often you read something online that doesn’t follow AP style or Chicago style. Even some really reputable publications have eased the standards they impose on their writers.
Why has this happened?
For the most part, people want to read content that’s written the way they talk. Something formal almost seems stuffy. This is part of the reason many writers defer to contractions now. Of course, there are notable exceptions where a more formal style is necessary, but a more casual style is usually desired.
I should also state that more casual does not mean sloppy. Things still need to be proofed. Long sentences, short sentences, occasional incomplete sentences - those all can be part of a personal style, but it has to be obvious. If not, it just looks like sloppy writing.
What does all this mean anything to you?
Writing style also applies to brands. You’ve probably noticed that many brands are also using a more informal style of writing for certain pieces of content. I say certain pieces because there are instances, like certain press releases (and especially financial press releases) where formality is still needed. But social media content, blog posts, emails, newsletters, even some whitepapers take a more casual tone.
How do you know what tone to take?
The biggest indicator is the industry you operate in. Some would say that companies selling directly to consumers can communicate more casually than those who sell to other businesses. I don’t see it that way though. B2B companies can sometimes use a more casual style than consumer companies. Regulation usually plays a bigger factor intone than the sales target. Companies in industries that are more heavily regulated may need to consistently use a more formal tone in some types of content.
If you feel like your company is struggling with tone, you may want to consider developing your own writing style guide. It would work similar to the AP Stylebook, but would of course be much shorter. It can serve as a guide to your brand’s writers to help give them a better sense of the style you’re going for. It can include musts (things you must do/include when writing), nevers (things you must never do/include when writing), examples, and directional queues.
If you need help getting a brand writing style guide started, let us know. We’re happy to help.