Yahoo shows why the Web really is different

Yahoo! There’s a new style guide! By Yahoo! Available now on the Web and to be available in print very soon.

Big deal, you say. You already have the Associated Press Stylebook (followed by most news publications), or the Chicago Manual of Style (followed by CJR and many magazines), or some other style guide, if not your own customized one.

But this one is different. Sometimes really different. And while it’s really not “new,” in that it’s been under development for some years, the imminence of a print and multiplatform version provide a nice news peg.

To start with, it was created not by journalists, but by writers, editors, and developers at Yahoo, some of whom have traditional journalism backgrounds and some of whom never saw the inside of a newsroom, electronic or otherwise. It was created not with the professional writer or editor in mind, as are most style guides, but for the people who write and post to the Web, including bloggers, companies and organizations that have never used a style guide before.

Perhaps most important, it comes at style not from the point of words, as most style guides do, but from the point of concepts like eye-tracking to figure out how readers look at Web pages, the differences between writing for the Web and for print, and selecting words not just for their impact on a reader, but for their impact on different platforms and search engines. (It even has useful suggestions for the wording of “user-interface” tools like buttons, registration forms, and FAQ lists. Yes, user-interface is different, if awkward to say aloud without having it sound like “you sir, in yer face.”

The “traditional” rules of style—capitalization, abbreviations, word usage, etc.—are not primary in this guide, and are generally rendered not as alphabetized lists, but as overall guidelines. Those that are listed are surprisingly similar to those in the AP Stylebook, and yet different. It advises, for example, to spell out numbers under 10 (as AP does). But where AP says to write “three dogs and 10 cats,” Yahoo says to make it “3 dogs and 10 cats.” Its reasoning is sound: “When numbers are treated consistently, readers can recognize the relationship between them more easily.” (AP, are you listening?) It also prefers the serial comma, which could win it both fans and enemies.

Not surprisingly, the Yahoo stylebook urges that, “within reason,” writers should follow the preference of a company or organization on capitalization and punctuation: The Yahoo! Style Guide, instead of the Yahoo Style Guide. News organizations, and AP, tend to minimize unusual punctuation because, as AP says, such “contrived spellings” might “distract or confuse a reader.”

So is it any good?

All style guides are good in that they encourage consistency in content (regardless of platform), and consistency in some of the little things, like numbers in a series, reduces the number of distractions for a reader. For a professional publication, the Yahoo Style Guide is probably not enough, though it probably would be a good supplement to a more comprehensive style guide.

And it’s important to remember that all style guides are guide books, not rule books. After all, it’s foolish consistency that is the hobgoblin of little minds.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.