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cover of Yahoo Style Guide

Book review: Yahoo! Style Guide

No matter what you think of Yahoo! it’s been around a long time.

Founded in 1995, the site remains one of the most popular destinations on the web.

For many years, Yahoo! was one of the most popular sites on the web, with many services and a ton of content.

The company’s writers and editors obviously have a ton of experience creating webpages, blogs, e-mail, and user interfaces.

Now this knowledge has been gathered together in The Yahoo! Style Guide: The Ultimate Sourcebook for Writing, Editing, and Creating Content for the Digital World.

At 512 pages, it’s a doozie, packed with useful tips and best practices. And much of what it suggests applies just as well to white papers.

How-to tips for white paper writers

For example, page 10 tells how to test the readability of your text with Word.

I do this routinely for all my white paper drafts.

Yet many writers don’t even know this feature exists, nor how to interpret the readability statistics that Word spits out in a few seconds.

Page 22 describes how to create a persona for your target audience, calling this by the friendlier term “model user” and providing a worksheet to fill in.

I find creating a persona or two can be a very useful exercise to help keep a major white paper on track.

And page 31 describes in detail how to develop a specific “voice” for a website, with many examples that explain attributes, formality, and tone.

Being able to control your voice, and vary it according to the requirements of different clients, is the mark of an accomplished professional writer.

Before and after rewrites

Another compelling feature of this guide is a number of “before” and “after” examples. Each one shows how to rewrite some tired or outdated text into more muscular, easy-to-scan prose.

Some of these rewrites aim to create pages that work better for mobile devices or web visitors.

Others will interest white paper writers interested in seeing how to cut the flab, use bullets effectively, and get to the point.

Writing, grammar, and technical tips

There’s also a seven-page list of verbose phrases you can trim, and a table of deadwood words you can drop.

And finally?! Someone who still knows what phrases like “begging the question” and “gilding the lily” really mean, and how to use them properly.

Plus, there’s a clear description of the difference between “that” and “which” and when to use each one. Somehow I missed that day in English class.

And, there’s a cool suggestion to think of the commas around any clause starting with “which” as dotted lines that show where you can cut. Brilliant!

Beyond these gems, there are all the chapters you would expect on abbreviations and punctuation, plus some surprise chapters on basic HTML, SEO, UI text, and copyright.

The entire book is a model of clarity, with examples for every point, and even some exercises sprinkled throughout to help emphasize certain points.

40 pages of pesky words

The guide is topped off by a 40-page list that shows how Yahoo! editors deal with troublesome terms like:

  • 24/7 (note slash)
  • C02 (subscript 2 not recommended online)
  • do’s and don’ts (note apostrophes)
  • 800GB (for gigabytes, note no space)
  • Linux (note initial cap only)
  • NASCAR but Nasdaq (note caps)
  • site map (two words)
  • sync but synched (the “h” helps readers get it)
  • toward (American) but towards (British)
  • UNIX (note caps)
  • ZIP code (note caps)

You don’t have to agree with how they handle every term.

But it’s great to see the rationale behind each term, and consider if you want to follow along.

Well-worth picking up

All in all, the The Yahoo! Style Guide is impressively clear and thorough, and well worth picking up for any writer or editor.

At press time, you could pick up a used hardcover copy from Amazon for less than $10. At that price, it’s an easy investment to make.

If you’re a marketing manager, you can use the Yahoo! Style Guide to help create your own corporate standards, and to train any new writers you add to your team.


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About Gordon Graham

Worked on 320+ white papers for clients from Silicon Valley to Switzerland, on everything from choosing enterprise software to designing virtual worlds for kids, for clients from tiny startups to 3M, Google, and Verizon. Wrote White Papers for Dummies which earned 60+ 5-star ratings on Amazon. Won 16 awards from the Society for Technical Communication. Named AWAI 2019 Copywriter of the Year.

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