Q&A with Julie Wildhaber, Yahoo! editor

Julie Wildhaber is one of the creators of The Yahoo! Style Guide. She trains writers and editors for Yahoo! and manages the Central Editorial copy desk. She has been editing online since 1996. In this interview, conducted by email, Wildhaber talks about the style guide and the differences between editing for print and online. Note: This post attempts to conform to Yahoo! style.

Q. Why is Yahoo! releasing a stylebook?

A. Because the Web needed a style guide. (That, or we wanted to bang our heads on our desks for two years while we developed the book.)

Excellent reference works abound, and we on the “Yahoo! Style Guide” team have used everything from AP to “Wired Style” to blogs. Generally, though, we found that guidance about Web issues like user interfaces and search-engine optimization targets an audience of Web developers, marketers, or designers rather than writers, while style guides and writing books often ignore online concerns.

We had a 200-page internal style guide, which also didn’t include everything we had learned in the past 15 years about writing for the Web, so we thought, why not create a guide that everyone can use?

Q. How is the Yahoo! guide different from the AP Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style?

A. We’re all about the Web, and our book is both style guide and writing manual. Chicago and AP are terrific, and we still consult them, but they’re built for print publishing. They don’t tell you how to write a Web-friendly headline, why you might want to use a double hyphen (–) rather than an em dash, how to bold or italicize text in HTML, or why the Digital Millennium Copyright Act changes copyright liability for certain sites.

When you write for the Web, you have to think about the complete experience: how people find your page, how they read and navigate the site, how text will look in a Web browser or on a cell phone or in email, and so on. You wouldn’t think that reading is all that different online, but it is: Electronic displays are harder on the eyes than paper, so people read more slowly on screens and skim the page before they commit to clicking a link or delving more deeply into the copy. Also, some of your site visitors may be blind and scanning a page through a screen reader, and some may speak English as a second language and have trouble with slang or jargon.

Speaking of word choice, those punning and clever headlines that we copy editors love to write for newspapers just don’t fly online. Think about how you use search engines: You probably don’t dig through 10 pages’ worth of results; more likely you click the first link that looks relevant, spend a few seconds scanning the page, and go back to search if you don’t see what you’re looking for.

Your time is precious, and the Web offers so many options that you can be fickle. So, headlines need to grab readers immediately by including keywords, by being clear and literal, and by explaining the story. They should also make sense if they stand alone, because a headline may appear in search results, mobile browsers, news feeds, blocks of related links, and other places where readers won’t see the rest of the story.

Q. How did the Yahoo! editors decide on the preferred spellings in the guide’s word list? For example, you like email, not e-mail.

A. Yes, and people have been sending questions about why we treat “email” and other words the way we do. The copy editor’s first line of defense is the house style sheet and preferred dictionary. But of course no dictionary or guide can keep up with all the new words, not to mention all the proper names, and references disagree about treatment. “Email” is a good example, so let’s look at some of the things you might consider in making a style decision:

  • Dictionaries. Look up both “email” and “e-mail” on a site like OneLook that searches multiple dictionaries at once. Most dictionaries hyphenate.
  • Other style guides and publications. AP hyphenates, which means that most news outlets use “e-mail,” and so does the “Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications” (2004). I believe “Wired Style” was the first style guide to close up “email,” and many technology publications and companies have followed, including Apple, InfoWorld, All Things Digital, and, more curiously, The Wall Street Journal.
  • Trademarks and company treatment. If the word is a proprietary name, check how the owner spells it. Companies are often inconsistent, however, so look for a copyright line at the bottom of the page, information about trademarks, an “about us” section, or a press release. Email isn’t a proper name, so we can move on.
  • Industry standards. Are you writing for or about a specialized field? If so, is there an organization that sets standards or terminology? For example, if you’re writing for psychologists, you would consult the APA (American Psychological Association) manual; and if you were debating whether to hyphenate “Wi-Fi,” you might consider how the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers), which sets networking standards, treats the word. “Email,” however, is not a specialized term.
  • Search-engine optimization. Plug your terms into a search engine to see (1) which is more popular–look for the total number of results under the search box (Google, Bing) or in the left column (Yahoo!)–and (2) which sites are more relevant to your site or topic. The results for “email” and “e-mail” are pretty similar in quantity and type, though I notice that in the top 10 results, the sites that hyphenate are Wikipedia, Hotmail, and news stories. The top two sites, sans hyphen, are Gmail and Yahoo! Mail.
  • Language trends. Is the word evolving, or are there trends in the way people are using or treating it? In the case of “email,” we see that search results are evenly split between hyphenated and closed, but a few years ago, you would have seen more results for “e-mail.” Also, common compound words in English tend to evolve from open (“electronic mail,” “on line”) to hyphenates (“e-mail,” “on-line”) to closed (“email,” “online”). Recently, AP decided to close up “website,” for instance.
  • Audience and voice. Are you writing for a specific or general audience? Will your readers think the term is difficult and unnecessary jargon, or will they think you’re out of touch if you don’t use the term or if you go against the way specialists treat it? As the search results showed, people use both “email” and “e-mail.” The trend among many Web and technology publications is to lose the hyphen, and we think dictionaries and other style guides will eventually adopt “email,” too. Readers may find that treatment a little fashion-forward, but we’re Yahoo!, Web pioneers, and “email” is appropriate to our voice.

So that’s why we decided, at least a decade ago, to close up “email.” On a personal note, I would say that “e-mail” looks old-fashioned to me, like “on-line.” Yes, we all know that the word derives from “electronic mail,” and the hyphen stands in for deleted letters, but who says “electronic mail” anymore? Is there any danger someone would misread “email”? I think not.

By the way, you can download the Yahoo! word list if you want to use it as a basis for your own. We have more guidelines about creating an in-house guide in Chapter 19 of the book.

Q. The Web has such a tremendous range of content, even in the area of news. What do you see as the future of style guides as the news media continue to fragment and specialize? In other words, can one style fit all?

A. In a word, no. I don’t know any copy editors who have just one book on their desk; we have a full shelf and triangulate multiple points of reference to zero in on the style that will work for our publication and our audience. And that, in my opinion, is how it should be: Language changes constantly, and the style decision that worked yesterday may not work next week. You have to keep doing your homework and updating your word list.

As for fragmentation and specialization, that’s why we focus on principles rather than platforms in our book. We don’t talk about how to tweet or how to write blurbs for YouTube; we talk about how to write good, concise, Web-friendly headlines that will work everywhere, and how to use captions and tags to make your content more findable and accessible, no matter which service you’re using. The platforms will change, but the principles are universally valid.

If you’ve flipped through the book or the website, you may have noticed that ours is not the most prescriptivist style guide. We have three rough categories of guidance: rules, best practices, and options.

Rules include things like subject-verb agreement, which most if not all grammarians would agree on. Best practices include using double hyphens instead of em dashes and straight quotes instead of curly quotes. Hyphens and straight quotes can be rendered by any software, whereas some browsers or text-based email may choke on special characters and display a weird symbol or a snippet of code instead. But we also show you how to code special characters in HTML, if you want to use them.

Finally, we have options for issues like capitalization, where title style and sentence style are equally fine for the Web–both are readable and searchable. We explain the rules for each and say to be consistent. We left flexibility in certain areas because we want to tell editors what generally works best online, but also let them decide what’s best for their site and their audience specifically.

Q. Some editors grumble about the exclamation mark in your name. Care to comment?

A. Sure! (Stet that exclamation point, Andy.) We editors are trained to be skeptical of exclamation marks and rightly so: They’re overused and tend to be a lazy writer’s crutch, propping up wispy sentences that should stand on strong verbs and intriguing adjectives. For Yahoo!, though, the mark’s not just a bit of punctuation; it’s part of our identity, our brand, and our voice.

Fun is one of our company values, and it’s one of the reasons readers like our sites and, I hope, will like the book, too–what other style guide helps you invent a stupid band name while teaching you a little HTML? (That’s Chapter 16.) Style-wise, we treat the exclamation point like a letter–other punctuation goes after it.

Naturally, companies and copy editors have different priorities. Companies have to promote their brands and protect their trademarks. Copy editors prioritize readability and consistency, among a hundred other worries.

My rule of thumb is to follow the company’s spelling for its name and its products, as you would for any other proper names, but to set your own house style for capitalization and punctuation. For instance, our style lowercases the “i” in “iPhone,” except when it’s the first word in a sentence; then we cap the “I” for readability.

I remember when “WALL-E” came out, and editors were going nuts trying to figure out what to do with the title. Pixar was spelling it with an interpunct before the “E,” one of those special characters that won’t work everywhere.

The title was also in all caps, and you couldn’t tell whether it was an acronym unless you had seen the movie. “WALL-E” is an acronym, as it happens, but lots of other company and product names are capitalized or even all-lowercase for marketing reasons, and you should choose a treatment that’s right for your readers.

2 thoughts on “Q&A with Julie Wildhaber, Yahoo! editor”

  1. On whether to keep the hyphen in e-mail, there are a couple of other considerations. One has to do with accessibility. The second has to do with translation.

    Removing the hyphen makes life easier for people who must use screen readers to access text. When the word is written “email,” instead of hearing “e hyphen mail,” they hear “e mail.” Getting rid of noise is a good thing; it should make the content more comprehensible.

    On the other hand, leaving the hyphen is (probably) better if the information is to be translated into French, where “email” is a word of its own, meaning “enamel.” In other words, in French “waiting for email” could mean that you’re waiting to receive a message or that you’re waiting for paint to dry.

    As is the case so often with usage, there is no one clearly superior method. Still, I’m leaning in the same direction as Yahoo!: Ditch the hyphen; even in French, the meaning should be clear from context.

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