Yahoo! It’s time to update your ‘Web site’ and maybe your style guide, too!

The AP Stylebook has always pissed me off.

It started in 1973 when my J-school professor insisted I spell “employe” with just one “e.” AP opted for the conventional spelling a few years later, but I still carry a grudge. Nevertheless, I enforce AP Style in the classroom. Always.

Since most PR professionals target mainstream media from time to time, it’s important they speak the language. On the blog, I still thumb my nose at AP, but only to be obstinate. I don’t spell out numbers under 10 here, and I use the word “website,” not AP’s preferred “Web site.”

Stop the presses! “Web site” WAS the preferred spelling until Friday, April 16, when the grand poohbahs of AP joined the rest of the world. “Website” is one word now, and with a lower-case “w.”

I know what you’re thinking. Who gives a s*@t, right?

In fact, a lot of people do. Some are happy with the change, others are not. But the real writers understand the value of a consistent style.

Yahoo! There’s a new stylebook in town!

It’s fitting that AP’s decision on “website” came 3 days after Yahoo!’s Senior Editorial Director visited Kent State. In at least 3 of his 6 sessions with students, Chris Barr poked fun at AP’s “Web site” affectation.

What's a tweet without a typo?

Chris visited Kent State to introduce the first real first competitor to the AP Stylebook in my professional life — and that’s a loooog time. It goes on sale in June.

The Yahoo! Style Guide tosses aside some of AP’s conventions, but the changes are subtle. For example, e-mail becomes email and the % sign, vs. “percent” is acceptable, so long as you’re consistent. No big deal.

Me and my advance proof of The Yahoo! Style Guide

Chris gave me an advance proof, and what I discovered was way more than a reference book. The Yahoo! Style Guide is a fairly comprehensive manual on writing for the Web.

Section I covers the fundamentals of writing for the online audience. The focus in on developing clear, compelling prose for the Web.

Section II shows you how to write inclusive copy that serves a worldwide audience as well as Internet users with disabilities.

Section III helps you with writing effective messages for interactive channels such as e-newsletters, email and mobile devices.

Section IV includes the nuts-and-bolts mechanics that AP does so well, but Yahoo!’s organization makes items easier to find. The book includes the usual sections on punctuation, abbreviations, capitalization and numbers.

Section V presents three chapters on editing and polishing to make copy clear, concise and correct. Those are important considerations for any writer, but are especially so when serving impatient online readers.

Section VI. The book concludes with a “Resource” section that offers lessons on HTML coding, search engine optimization, and U.S. legal issues related to online content.

As an educator, I see see a textbook, not a reference guide. And I can use it in any basic course on writing and editing for the online audience. PR students, I also see a book that can replace the AP Stylebook, even if the mechanics section isn’t quite as comprehensive.

Do we really need a style book?

Dumb question. Of course we do.

With the explosion of blogging over the past 5-6 years, the good old AP Stylebook was scorned by many journalist wannabes. Maybe they viewed it as a tool of mainstream conformity. Who knows?

But the real writers out there know that a style guide, be it AP’s or Yahoo!’s, brings a consistency and a professionalism to our work. Yeah, it’s a pain in the ass sometimes, but a necessary one.

No one who values good writing should argue that last point. But I suspect someone will.

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19 Responses to Yahoo! It’s time to update your ‘Web site’ and maybe your style guide, too!

  1. Laura says:

    I’d have a lot more faith in a Yahoo style guide if I thought that Yahoo’s editors and writers were actually using one themselves. They can’t even decide if it’s “Web site,” “web site,” or “website.” You’ll find all 3 in their writing. (http://terriblywrite.wordpress.com/2010/04/09/is-it-website-web-site-or-web-site-who-knows-not-yahoo/a)

    Unlike Yahoo has a higher standard for its own original content (or any standard, for that matter), I’ll look to a more credible authority — like AP.

  2. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by BillSledzik: Heard about the new Yahoo! Style Guide? The AP Stylebook won’t know what hit it! My take: http://bit.ly/bSlOE0

  3. Bill Sledzik says:

    Being a role model is important, Laura. My review is based on the book by Yahoo!’s senior editors, not the performance of the website. But walking the talk still matters.

    I don’t spend a lot of time on Yahoo! (though I do use it as my home page and sometimes click the headlines). I prefer to draw news from original sources. Part of Yahoo!’s challenge may be the task of aggregating information written in a range of styles.

    The bigger problem, of course, is that those who actually gather and analyze the news — those journalists and their publishers — chose to give it away, betting on an if-come revenue model that didn’t work. Consistent style will be the least of our worries if the watchdog stops doing its job. Then there won’t be anything of value to aggregate or edit.

    • Laura says:

      No question that aggregating info is a challenge for Yahoo. But my blog, Terribly Write, focuses solely on original content on Yahoo — content written by Yahoo’s writers and editors. The number and seriousness of errors (from misspellings to grammatical mistakes to factual errors) they make every day leaves me questioning the value of the style guide.

      • Bill Sledzik says:

        I see your point, Laura. But I lay blame on the editors, not the tool itself.

        You raise another important question: Why don’t sites such as Yahoo! place more emphasis on good writing and communication. Maybe we’ll bait Chris Barr into this discussion! It’s almost 8 a.m. on the Coast.

  4. mediatide says:

    Writing for the web IS a different animal. As you well know, I pointed that out in a guest lecture I did for one of your classes in 2002, and also at the Akron PRSA workshop in 2003.

    At both events, I stressed the need to be brief in the body copy, and make the copy in the hyperlinks sell the destination content.

    You brought up the use of “website.” What do they say about capitalizing the ‘W’ when referring to “the W/web”?

    • Bill Sledzik says:

      To your question: Web must remain a proper noun, since it’s the shortened version of World Wide Web. Also, the word “web” can mean a lot of things. With an initial cap, it can mean only “World Wide Web.”

      I’m sure not gonna tell Sir Tim Berners Lee that he’s lower case. I mean, we owe the guy that.

  5. Yossi Mandel says:

    Your suspect is here. Bill, are you up for a tussle over this? Cause I’m still trying to find value in a style book. You write that “the real writers understand the value of a consistent style,” and “a style guide … brings a consistency and a professionalism to our work.” I don’t know if there are comprehensive studies of this, and I would doubt the results anyway – when you tell a reader to look for something (inconsistent usage) they will find it, regardless of whether they really notice the changes in usage when reading on a regular basis.

    Simply put, writing is made better by improving elements noticeable to the reader, not invisible elements. Proofreading for spelling is therefore necessary, but copy editing for style use is not.

    When Gene Weingarten asked his online readers to spot the copywriting errors in an article in the wake of the mass dismissal of proofers and copy editors at the Washington Post, he listed over 50 such errors. But the truth is, the article read well either way. The only people who would have noticed the difference are the people who pick bones over style guides in the first place – the cause of the problem, not the target audience.

    The only possible professionalism here is that of putting up an unnecessary barrier to entry in to writing. The style guide is the writing society’s equivalent of hazing initiations.

    • Bill Sledzik says:

      And a thoughtful argument it is, Yossi. Thanks for the response and for some great points.

      I will agree that the number-one concern here is to produce clear and concise writing that people understand. It also must be relevant.

      Style is an editing step, and it’s designed to ensure common understanding. The average person, for example, might use the reference Muskegon, MI. And that might leave the reader wondering if the town is in Michigan or Mississippi. Abbreviations like those used in AP or Yahoo! eliminate the confusion to a large degree. Same is true for titles. Let’s agree to do them one way, so everyone gets the same message.

      I’ll admit that many of the rules for punctuation and capitalization suggested in AP or Yahoo! are fairly standard usage. But why not be consistent? Yahoo! and AP enable us to agree on such things.

      Where you and I disagree strongly is on the idea that “style” somehow creates a barrier for writers who want to publish, or worse, that style is tantamount to hazing. Barriers to publication on respected sites or journals are removed by one’s ability to gather information, organize it and present it intelligently. The editors will fix the little stuff.

      Clearly, that is not an issue you have to worry about, as you write clearly.

      Thanks for returning for another read. Hope you’ll stick around!

      • Yossi Mandel says:

        :-) Thanks for the compliment. Consistency also produces bland material. Reading a newspaper feels like reading the same sentence over and over again after a certain point. If we encourage valuable diversity in life, why not encourage valuable diversity in writing styles? We sacrifice diversity for a minimal gain in clarity. Imagine inviting a guest to a 5 course dinner, and offering the same food with slightly different preparation for each course. So instead of reading news from one source, we aggregate various sources using a feed, and the news and opinions seem fresh.

        Another sacrifice (not intended, but practically speaking inevitable) was that newspapers were burdened with the task of not only investigating news and reporting it, but of pouring resources into how it is written. Mistakes in journalism happened before the Internet struck and can’t be blamed on this overstaffing, but what if accurate news was delivered with typos? We’ve come to associate spelling-error free writing with accuracy in reporting, and that’s a huge mistake. The Greeks and Romans elevated rhetoric to an art form of its own, and we suffer from that until today.

        I’m always around, just have more to learn and less to say.

  6. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by BillSledzik, BillSledzik, Mike Pilarz, KarenRussell, Doug Lacombe and others. Doug Lacombe said: RT @BillSledzik: Intrigued by the soon-to-be-released "Yahoo! Style Guide." Useful to anyone who writes for online. http://bit.ly/bSlOE0 [...]

  7. Bill Sledzik says:

    @ Yossi. Will grant you that routine news can be bland and formulaic. It’s designed to deliver facts in order of importance so readers can cut and run anytime after the second paragraph. That style of front-loading, aka the “inverted pyramid,” works exceptionally well in the online environment, where readers are in a hurry to grab the highlights. But that style isn’t dictated by AP or Yahoo! — it’s a convention of mainstream journalism that developed over the past 150 years

    I do understand — too well — that the standard writing style of U.S. journalism can be stifling to some writers. I teach this stuff! But it’s designed to serve up “history in a hurry” to audiences who also are in a hurry. It’s functional, not artistic. And it serves the reader’s needs by getting to the point quickly.

    But keep in mind, not all news is delivered in the inverted pyramid style, even though MOST news is presented using AP style to guide grammar, punctuation, etc. Heck, even great literary magazines and book publishers have stylebooks.

    You see the style guide as a constraint. I see it as an aid to understanding. Somethin’ tells me we’re not going to agree here, my friend. But I’m enjoying the discussion.

    As for typos, I’m preaching a cultural bias on that one. I believe mistakes reflect on the writer. And I still hold the value of accuracy in great esteem. (You will note that errors in Yahoo!’s day-to-day content are a primary reason Laura says she can’t respect the Yahoo! Style Guide.)

    Of course, in this age of self-publishing, it’s unrealistic to expect consistency of style, and no one can impose it.Those decisions will be left to the individual organizations and the people who write for them. That’s where I see the real value of the Yahoo! project coming into play.

    • Yossi Mandel says:

      Everyone agrees journalism as we knew it is broken. No bold step forward has been taken to change it. So the breaking is happening out of inertia, chaotically. The style guide is disappearing because of lack of staff to enforce it, instead of being reevaluated consciously for the next age.

  8. Bill Sledzik says:

    Hmmm. Have you been reading Jay Rosen’s blog?

    Will agree that journalism’s business model is broken beyond repair. Also agree that a period of chaos is forthcoming — and I’m rather looking forward to it. Something new will emerge, perhaps beginning with the entrepreneurs or maybe a nonprofit news model like we have with NPR and PBS.

    But I don’t see the day when the news of the day is gathered and reported primarily by unpaid citizen journalists. We all have better stuff to do with our time. And most of us don’t have storytelling skills.

    I’m all for chaos, OK? I just don’t want chaos run by amateurs.

    Is journalism itself broken? I don’t think so. Journalism is just fact-based storytelling, and that will survive in new forms. But if we want journalism to serve the democracy as the founders hoped it would, it must be funded in some way. The culture of “free” can’t last. There won’t be anyone to produce the content.

    I’m also not one of those who believe the people are smart enough or interested enough to sort out the truth from the blather. The Tea Party movement is evidence that a lot of folks need arbiters to separate fact from fiction.

    Some have said I’m presenting an elitist idea, but dang it, there’s a real need for wise neutral third parties to help us all make sense of the world. And we can’t leave that to the aggregators like Google.

  9. Yossi Mandel says:

    In complete agreement about citizen journalism. Investigative reporting needs resources backing it.

    On the other hand, perhaps it was the culture of “paid” that couldn’t last. Our advances began with free, discoveries made by unpaid curious researchers since prehistoric times. Art moved from free and unpaid to patronage of nobles and the wealthy to consumers paying.

    Perhaps we are on the downturn of a cycle back to art created with no dream of riches, science investigated with no dream of patents and corporations, and investigation done in poverty for the sake of truth. I’m not saying those were good times all around. I just read a lot of the “free can’t last” cry, and I’m not sure it’s true.

  10. I’ve always compared news and online writing to building a submarine – you’re always cramming as much thought (we hope) as possible into a small space. The AP style rules, for the most part, do a nice job of helping writers keep things brief. That means more room to cram ideas and info into the writing, rather than bloat that doesn’t do anything.

    There are so many online writers who are too lazy to master and use a style, and it shows in their writing.

  11. Stacy Wessels says:

    The AP Style guide gives me something to base my decisions on. I suppose any style guide would do the same thing. Relying on a single style guide gives all of us in the writing world a foundation for viciously editing copy. Of course, lots of organizations have their own style guide, but I prefer to make an individualized client publications guide that starts with AP.

  12. Bill Sledzik says:

    I’m not going to argue with you, Stacy. I’ve made my case for why a style is important. But I really worry that we’re headed toward a let-it-all-hang-out writing style. And I’m equally worried that so many folks think that’s a good thing, and think I’m a hopeless old fart for disagreeing.

    Understanding requires common ground, and style is a part of that.

    But then I see posts like this one, and I realize that I live in a very different world than a lot of others. As one who as also been in the trenches and taught writing to the misbegotten, you’ll get a kick out of this one. It’s titled, “The Internet has created a generation of great writers.” Let’s just say, I ain’t buyin’ it.

  13. Marketing $ociologist says:

    Having lived and breathed AP and UPI stylebooks for 35 years, it is great to see AP jump on board with email and website.

    I criticize where ever I can those using healthcare. There’s no such word in the dictionary nor AP. Unfortunately, there’s no such word as stylebook, either, but AP utilizes it. What’s up wit dat?

    Lastly, rather than wait for AP to catch up in 10 years, I’m dubbing it SmartPhone!

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