Copywriting Rules I Struggle With

February 17, 2021 Updated: 2/18/2021

I edit technical articles over at CSS-Tricks. I literally read tens of thousands of words a day about front-end development practices and trickery, making changes along the way, and it’s been that way largely since 2016 or so. Even with all that experience, I still find myself questioning the way I approach certain grammatical instances. And even when I do settle on an approach, I probably wind up changing it several months later after something convinces me otherwise.

Things like…

Whether to use sentence-casing on titles and headings

If you compare this post title to that heading, you’ll see where I’m currently at with this one. I prefer title-casing articles titles—that’s what the name suggests, right?—while using sentence casing on headings.

Is that based on AP style guidelines? Or perhaps MLA? APA? Nope. That’s me. I like the formality that uppercased words bring to a title. My wife is also an editor for a publication and she recently decided to start using sentence-casing instead, citing a trend among professional blog sites and a few news organizations.

That’s cool, but is also too casual for my taste and seems more like a fad. That said, it can very well be the right call depending on the intended tone of voice. I’m trying to establish CSS-Tricks as an authoritative source of information and formal titles help that cause. But my wife’s organization is known for being a bit, shall I say, stodgy, and sentence-casing titles helps soften that perception. I, too, will make exceptions on titles when it seems the right call for the tone of the piece, but err on the formal side of things.

But once you get into the article, it’s sentence-casing all the way to get things back into a relaxed feel to let the information settle in like a good conversation.

Spaces between em dashes

I’m a serial user of the em dash and it takes looking no further than four paragraphs up to see that. But is it this:

I prefer title casing articles titles—that's what the name suggests, right?—while using sentence casing on headings.

…or this:

I prefer title casing articles titles — that's what the name suggests, right? — while using sentence casing on headings.

I know, super subtle. But everyone is different and I haven’t found any hard and fast rules on it. I’ve even seen the same AP article copyedited differently online and in print.

I leaned on no spaces for a while, shifting to using spaces, and am now back to ditching them. I actually enjoy the aesthetic of spacing—back to that comfy conversation sort of thing. Spacing seems to slow things down a bit but maintains a nice flow. No spacing is more immediate, like to the point.

Geez, now I’m second-guessing my decision to re-adopt no spacing.

Quotations and commas

“This might be the most frustrating thing,” I say to myself every time I encounter a comma outside of a quotation. After years and years of my eyes being trained one way, seeing something like this makes them nearly pop out of my head.

"This might be the most frustrating thing", I say to myself.

It just. Doesn’t. Look. Right. Neither does this line of text.

There are plenty of rules on this and what I’ve found is that my eyes are correct as far as English punctuation goes—the comma goes inside the quotation.

But it turns out English is in the minority here, and many other languages go with commas outside of quotes in all situations:

In the song "Baby Got Back", Sir Mix-a-Lot speculates...

"Bacon and avocado together are divine", she gushed.

The point is made very clear in their post "How to Properly Crack an Egg".

I’m sorry, I just can’t. The APA guidelines are pretty clear on this:

Place periods and commas within closing single or double quotation marks. Place other punctuation marks inside quotation marks only when they are part of the quoted material.

Emphasis mine

And while it’s dated, an APA blog post answers a reader’s question in greater detail, offering this table reference:

Punctuation LocationExampleNotes
PeriodInsideParticipants who kept dream diaries described themselves as “introspective” and “thoughtful.” 
CommaInsideMany dream images were characterized as “raw,” “powerful,” and “evocative.” 
ParenthesesOutsideBarris (2010) argued that “dreams express and work with the logic of gaining a sense of and a relation to ourselves, our lives, or our sense of reality as a whole” (p. 4).See more examples of how to cite direct quotations here.
Semi-colonOutsideAt the beginning of the study, participants described their dream recall rate as “low to moderate”; at the end, they described it as “moderate to high.” 
ColonOutsideParticipants stated they were “excited to begin”: We controlled for participants’ expectations in our study. 
Question mark or exclamation point (part of quoted material)InsideThe Dream Questionnaire items included “How often do you remember your dreams?” and “What do you most often dream about?” We found intriguing results.When a quotation ending in a question mark or exclamation point ends a sentence, no extra period is needed.
Question mark or exclamation point (not part of quoted material)OutsideHow will this study impact participants who stated at the outset, “I never remember my dreams”? We hypothesized their dream recall would increase. 
Quotation within a quotation + period or commaInsideSome participants were skeptical about the process: “I don’t put any stock in these ‘dream diaries.’”When multiple quotation marks are used for quotations within quotations, keep the quotation marks together (put periods and commas inside both; put semi-colons, colons, etc., outside both).

Formatting quotations

Speaking of quotes, another thing that stymies me is italicizing them. I actually don’t mind it much. It’s just not really supported as far as writing style guides go. According to Grammar Girl, none of the major style guides include quotations in their rules for italicizing content. There are plenty of use cases for italics, but quotes just don’t appear to be one of them.

Plus, this personal bit of commentary from the author:

Another point that often isn’t addressed yet by style guides is that italics can be hard to read not just for people with dyslexia but for anyone using a computer screen, so often, when you are given the option, it’s better to use bold to highlight text rather than italics when you’re writing for the web. That’s also why we use the AP style on the Grammar Girl website and usually enclose words, letters, and titles in quotation marks instead of using italics.

I’d love to see some research on that. It’s also a great reminder that content is as much an accessibility concern as any other work in front-end development.

I’m sure there are other things I’m forgetting here, but these are the ones that are currently flying on my radar. Copywriting and editing is a tough game but also super interesting and fun.

I’m intentionally unbeholden to one style or set of rules. I find that dogmatism creates awkward situations and can even pollute the intended voice and tone of a piece. And that’s really what’s important, right? I want an author to sound good, and sometimes that means breaking a rule here and there. As long as the editing in a given article is consistent, then it’s perfectly fine in my book if that article doesn’t exactly match another on the same site or publication.

That may be different in your particular case (e.g. an academic setting that rigidly enforces standards). But I’m building a community of people sharing their thoughts and ideas with their peers. A little digression from the rules here and there is a human touch that helps that effort. Yes, it’s a delicate tight rope to walk, but I like the subtle differences and nuances between articles on a site like CSS-Tricks. That’s the voice and I love fostering that voice rather than gate-keeping it.