The Write Stuff

Has Yahoo created an AP stylebook for the digital age?

The Yahoo Style Guide: The Ultimate Sourcebook for Writing, Editing, and Creating Content for the Digital World | St. Martin’s Griffin | 528 pages, $21.99

If you strolled by a copy editor’s desk at any metro newsroom thirty years ago, you would have likely seen, sandwiched between the pica pole and the Carter’s Rubber Cement, a well-worn, dog-eared version of the Associated Press Stylebook. The glue pot and ruler are long gone. And now, in an age when anyone can publish instantaneously to any corner of the world, it’s worth asking whether the stylebook should be discarded as well.

One answer comes not from the AP or the descendants of Strunk and White, but from Yahoo Inc. The company recently published The Yahoo Style Guide, proclaiming it “the ultimate sourcebook for writing, editing and creating content for the digital world.” At more than five hundred pages, and with an accompanying robust Web site, it is remarkable both for what it addresses (everything from hyphenating compound modifiers to abbreviating state names) and for what it says about where journalism is headed in the twenty-first century.

One of the most interesting things about the guide is that it exists at all. Why does the free and open Web need a Fortune 500 multinational to clarify whether Midwest should be capitalized (yes, when referring to the center of the U.S.) or when to use the exclamation point (sparingly)? And why should bloggers, hyperlocal reporters, and online newsletter editors turn to Yahoo when the company has already been eclipsed by Google in search?

The answer, or part of it, is that Yahoo’s content business remains impressively robust, with fifty-six million unique users visiting Yahoo News in June 2010, the company says, citing comScore figures. And Chris Barr, Yahoo’s senior editorial director and the book’s editor, argues that the guide is intended to “raise the level of writing on the Web”—something Yahoo feels the AP hasn’t tackled. “The AP guide is the bible of the newspaper industry. We wanted to address the rest of the world that the AP doesn’t deal with.”

The editors make their priorities clear early on. When writing for the Web, they favor short over long, simple over complex, consistency over laxity. “Online audiences expect far more information, in much less space, in far less time, than ever before,” the preface says. “Attention spans are short, and every pixel counts.”

Thus, as early as the fourth page of the guide, Yahoo reproduces a diagram from an eye-tracking study showing how online readers flit across a computer screen and rapidly size up headlines, photos and other cues to decide whether to click or flee. In admonitory boldface, editors warn that “your content has a few seconds—three or less! —to encourage people to read more…” (So much for that advice on superfluous exclamation points.)

Much of what Yahoo advises would fit within the wisdom offered by a pantheon of great writing experts, from Lynne Truss to William Zinsser. Don’t split infinitives, except when it’d be awkward not to. Use the active voice and present tense whenever possible.

Yet unlike the AP stylebook, which is written in the tone of an unyielding grammar teacher, with rules pronounced from on high, Yahoo’s guide is imbued with a keen consciousness of content users as well as content creators. One chapter is entitled “Identify Your Audience” and urges authors to study usage data, do online surveys and create profiles to adapt their content to readers. Then again, the guide says, don’t assume you know who your readers are. Someone from the other side of the planet who happens across your site will be mystified by language specific to your culture or geography—and confronted by such idioms, that visitor may click off to another site.

Without always saying so, Yahoo is concerned about the tendency of editors to transfer print standards to the Web. For example, newspaper journalists like to use italics to convey everything from emphasis to irony. But as the guide points out, those italics don’t show up in online RSS feeds or search-engine results, so the reader may get a completely different impression from what the author intended. Digital editors are advised to write and insert “alt text” when publishing photos; if some readers, constrained by anything from a slow Internet connection to a visual impairment, are unable to see the image, the text will still convey its content. And woe to the editor who thinks that fixing a mistake moments after it’s published means your readers will never see it. As the guide notes, errors show up instantly in RSS feeds and e-mails, and caching has a way of revealing all kinds of history we might want to forget or erase.

As befitting a book published by Yahoo, the guide emphasizes techniques to make content easily searchable, as a way to drive traffic and help ensure the success of your site. The reader is urged to “[s]eed your copy with keywords” that search engines can find quickly—and embed those keywords in headings and other display type that count the most. Link to other sites, and encourage those sites to link to yours. And if you have the choice between being clever and being search-engine friendly, opt for the latter.

Such advice may come as a shock to journalists trained to write and prize deftly written, pun-laden display copy. Back in 1993, The Wall Street Journal’s story about vegetarian dogs led with the wonderful headline, “Ruff, Ruff, Ruffage! Here, Rover, Have a Nice Bean Sprout.” Online, that might be reduced to the blander, more SEO-friendly, “Tips to Feed Your Dog a Vegan Diet.” (That said, “Headless Body in Topless Bar” would work as well on today as it did in the New York Post in 1983.)

There are some problems with the guide, particularly in the section devoted to legal issues. U.S. media law, ranging from copyright to libel, is reduced to ten pages, the gist of which is: Don’t copy other people’s content without permission, and if anything else comes up, find a good lawyer.

And for journalists, other chapters will strike an odd chord. Yahoo intends this guide to be used by anyone writing for the Web, and much advice is geared more toward marketing than journalism. So, should reporters and editors be turned off by guidelines designed to get people to read your promotional e-mail, or tips on how to get your headlines picked up by search engines?

This is a question dogging newsrooms everywhere, particularly when reporters are judged by page-view metrics, when their jobs consist increasingly of ensuring their stories are touted on Twitter and Facebook, linked to by influential bloggers, and otherwise marketed beyond whatever traffic comes off the home page. And that, in fact, is what makes this guide so interesting. Yahoo, without apology or complaint, embraces the view that online writers and editors are responsible for building and curating their audiences. At the same time, it asserts the need for editorial standards that will “inspire trust in this new medium…. Elevating content creation to the level of craft benefits everyone on the Web.”

In an interview, Barr says it’s not so important that a site follow Yahoo’s guidelines, but that it follow some rules that are transparent and enforced. To this end, the book devotes an entire chapter to showing editors how to create a “word list”—basically, a mini style sheet—that staffers can follow, rigorously. “Our advice is to be consistent, to develop a ‘voice compass,’” says Barr. “We don’t care what you choose—as long as you choose one style and stick with it.”

It’s way too early to say whether the Yahoo guide will match the ubiquity of the AP stylebook. But journalists who care about where their industry is headed will want to own one, both for the concise advice it offers and for the underlying message it conveys.

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Bill Grueskin is former academic dean at Columbia Journalism School. He is now on the school's faculty and is also executive editor/training at Bloomberg News.