New Rules for Web Writing?

Apr 22, 2010

When it comes to writing for the web, who sets the rules? For most publications, it used to be The AP Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law. But now Yahoo! is hoping to set the standards for online writing with The Yahoo! Style Guide: The Ultimate Sourcebook for Writing, Editing, and Creating Content for the Digital World, which is set to be released this July.

Yahoo! claims that its book is unique because it offers guidelines solely for writing on the web, and will also touch on topics including helping users optimize web pages. However, AP has been addressing web-related terms for years. Its upcoming edition, coming out next month, is also embracing the online publication arena by including a guide on social media.

So can these two editorial guides work together to help users, or is there only room for one? Colleen Newvine, a Product Manager for The AP Stylebook, said the guides can serve complementary needs. "If you are a journalist who needs to learn more about search engine optimization or writing for mobile devices, the Yahoo! guide migh  offer guidance you won't find in the AP stylebook. Similarly, a blogger or website designer might turn to the AP stylebook for help on language usage," she said.

Newvine thinks The AP Stylebook will reign because it will be a broader guide for language, grammar, punctuation, and usage. "Yahoo! sounds like they are targeting a narrower niche, focusing on a specific need of some writers," she said. "Journalists hold The AP Stylebook near and dear," she added. Yahoo! had not responded for comment at the time of publication.

Organizations that want to use one guide may prefer AP due to its traditional nature and familiar style. Benjamin Roosien, an editorial professional with Michigan State University's WIDE program, said that AP's standards give writing a journalistic feel, which he believes translates well for the web. He thinks that online and print readers value the succinct style that AP standards provide. "It's this brevity that makes me think most publications, including magazines, should, and will, continue to use AP style," Roosien said.

Lorna Garey, content director for InformationWeek Analytics, advocates for the consistency that style guides bring, and said she does not see the need for The Yahoo! Style Guide.

"Why reinvent the wheel? So many editors know AP, I don't see the point in starting over," she said. Most outlets have supplemental style guides to cover things that AP does not, she added, and organizations will still turn to those sorts of things when they are not sure what ruling to stick with.

Sandy Young, a freelance writer known as The AP Stylist at, believes there are not enough regulations for web writing, but does not think there should be separate standards for web and print. She said that because print material is available on the web, it would take too much time to reformat text for it to meet web standards. Instead, she said AP should provide more comprehensive web guidelines. "That way there will be one guide for all written formats. Too many guides will just lead to confusion," she said.

Wondering which book will take precedence comes just as AP announced the change of its style on the word "website." The switch was officially announced at the American Copy Editors Society conference on April 16, is already in effect, and will appear in the new edition. For years, many people argued that website was more common and AP needed to get with the times.

Sally Jacobsen, deputy managing editor for projects at the AP and one of three Stylebook editors, told Poynter Online that the AP made the change because the one-word reference is increasingly common and preferred.

"The change shows that the AP style changes aren't just arbitrary. Stylebook users' responses and suggestions seem really important to the overall process of figuring out which entries to add and update," said Mallary Jean Tenore, a copy editor and writer for The Poynter Institute, which contributed extensive coverage of the conference.

At least we know that AP is listening and evolving just as the internet continues to do. Regardless who sets the so-called standards for writing on the web, one thing is for certain: Not everyone will play by the rules, but that's what makes the internet so interesting, anyway.