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Exclusive Interview with Yahoo! Managing Editor Chris Barr

In AC News on July 23, 2010 at 3:34 pm

The “Yahoo! Style Guide: The Ultimate Sourcebook for Writing, Editing and Creating Content for the Digital World” hit bookstores on July 6, 2010 and is one of the most comprehensive writing resources for Web content specialists, bloggers, UI designers and anyone working in the digital content field.

If you’re an Associated Content Contributor, pick up a copy of this book (or snag one from AC’s giveaway — more details at the end of this post) so that you can find out exactly what type of content Yahoo! is looking for, how to fine-tune your writing for the Web, and how to deliver compelling, quality content consistently — Yahoo! style!

I caught up with Chris Barr, one of Yahoo!’s managing editors, to learn more about the guide, and also picked up a few writing tips straight from the source.

Feel free to leave questions and comments at the end of this post, and bookmark the official Yahoo! Style Guide website so that you have full access to the free tips and posts from Yahoo! editors.

About the Yahoo! Style Guide

Chris Barr explains that the Yahoo! Style Guide,  “started out as an internal reference on how to write “Yahoo!” and was used by Yahoo! Web content developers to attract and build audiences. Little by little the guide grew as Yahoo! ventured into new areas, and was asked for by writers, marketers, editors, programmers, community managers, and product managers. Today it provides guidance for all writers in the company network, whether they’re bloggers, video producers, reporters, newsletter copywriters, or documentation specialists. We’re happy to share these best practices with the world because everybody benefits when content is concise and easy to read.”

Exclusive Interview with Chris Barr

SK: How many people contributed to the Yahoo! Style Guide?

CB: A core group of 12 put together “The Yahoo! Style Guide,” but it was influenced by many past and present Yahoo! writers, editors, and content creators. We name more than 40 people in the acknowledgements and I’m sure we missed a number of valuable contributors.

SK: Tell us a little bit about yourself! How long have you been with Yahoo! and what are your primary roles and responsibilities. What inspired you to create the book?

CB: I’m a long-time online editor, beginning at PC Magazine in the 1980s — a time when “online” was not the Internet, and I became the founding editor-in-chief of CNET in 1995.

I joined Yahoo! in 2007 and serve as senior editorial director. My team:

  • Sets the global editorial standards for Yahoo! style and voice, all aspects of user interaction text, blogging guidelines, policy (advertorial, appropriateness), and similar documentation
  • Teaches Yahoos worldwide how to be better writers and editors, whether they’re blogging, programming front doors, creating new products, or writing for marketing or public relations
  • Upholds the standards through editing or writing copy for new properties and features as well as visible network and corporate content, such as front page packages, blogs (News, entertainment), marketing copy, press releases, etc.

The guide is based on the “Yahoo! Editorial Style Guide” that was in use when I arrived. It was so good that I thought with a little rework we could make it available to writers outside Yahoo!. Little did I know that it would take two years to complete!

SK: How does Associated Content factor into Yahoo!’s overall editorial strategy?

CB: Associated Content is a key component in filling the editorial holes of this expanding global demand for relevant content. I’m so excited to be working with the AC community.

SK: Would you say the guide is geared more towards web content writers, editors or content developers? Would someone who is just starting out writing for the web find it easy to follow?

CB: The guide was written for a wide audience:

  • Journalists, personal and corporate bloggers, writers, technical writers, editors, students, and professors who create or edit content for websites and must know the unique requirements of Internet content.
  • Web developers, designers, information architects, and others who handle the many website pages that contain valuable information for visitors.
  • Content creators for mobile devices, one of the fastest growing Internet platforms.
  • Small- and medium-size businesses, especially those with limited editorial resources or those that are launching or improving their websites.
  • Advertising agencies, PR agencies, direct marketing organizations, and everyone who writes marketing copy, email solicitations, Web advertisements, business communications, newsletters, or communications to customers or employees.
  • Newspapers that are augmenting paper distribution with digital distribution.

It’s the perfect guide for anyone just starting out because it’s written in Yahoo! style, so it’s easy to read and fun. See for yourself at the companion website: http://styleguide.yahoo.com

SK: What are three or four of the most important writing or editing lessons all AC Contributors can benefit from, and/or start using right away?

CB: At Yahoo! we stress clarity, conciseness, and consistency, and those qualities will benefit all AC contributors.

Here are some specific suggestions:

  1. Front-load the most important information: in the first paragraph, above the fold. You have 5-10 seconds to hook readers, so don’t bury the lead.
  2. Write brief, keyword-loaded headings that present accurate, complete, and concise information about the story.
  3. Limit stories to about 300 words per page…unless you have a really sound reason for going longer.
  4. Organize info into compact (two- to three-sentence) paragraphs or bulleted lists, one idea per chunk.

I have zillions more, but you asked for only four!

SK: Web content demands continue to change from year to year, and SEO rules are still evolving. What prompted the publication of the “Yahoo! Style Guide” this year? Do you think some of the material will become outdated?

CB: The fact that the landscape is evolving and changing makes it so much fun for me. Back at CNET in 1995 we didn’t have many of the tools and content standards that have been developed over the past 15 years. I hope and expect the next 15 years to be just as innovative and expansive.

We will update and modify the guide as necessary, and we’ll probably put the changes and new information on our website first. It takes eons to get changes into print.

SK: Does Yahoo! have plans to offer an online course for new writers or UI designers with the “Yahoo! Style Guide” as the textbook? If so, what can we expect? If not, what other resources will be/are available for people who purchase the book?

CB: We haven’t thought about doing that, but it’s a great idea! In the meantime, we’ve been working with journalism schools to use the guide as a text, and a number of them are going to offer classes on how to write for the Web. For people who purchase the book, “The Yahoo! Style Guide” has exercises where people can test their Web-writing skills.

SK: How much of the “Yahoo! Style Guide” material is available online?

CB: A little more than half. For practical and contractual reasons, not all the content from the print version is reproduced on the website. We have posted selections from 14 of the book’s 19 chapters (see the full table of contents), condensing some material to make it more Web friendly.

But the Web allows us to add features unavailable in print, such as the Ask an Editor facility, and we make the word list available for downloading. On the Web we can easily add new words, modernize concepts as technology advances, and get useful suggestions from readers.

SK: How is the Yahoo! Style Guide different from resources such as the AP Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style?

CB: AP is a good resource but it doesn’t address how to write for an online audience, how to develop your voice, how to write online headlines, how to incorporate SEO into Web copy, and on and on.

“The Yahoo! Style Guide” also provides lots of Internet-specific information like why you should avoid italics. Other guides tend to be a bit behind the curve when it comes to styling Internet words. For example, we’ve been using ‘website” for years, and AP just closed up “Web site” in April 2010. And they still use “e-mail” while we use “email.” Also, our usage examples are far more entertaining.

“The Yahoo! Style Guide” will not only address overall principles of good writing and editing, but also Web-specific subjects such as:

  • How to write for online reading
  • How to choose the right words to bring more people to your site with search engine optimization
  • Best practices for corporate and personal blogging
  • How to write effective email and newsletters
  • Internet law: trademarks, copyright, and defamation
  • Headlines for online content
  • Writing and editing English for an international audience

SK: Will you be publishing other editions of the Yahoo! Style Guide as things change and evolve in the content publishing world?

CB: Hey, let us catch our breath! We don’t have plans for other editions but I’m not ruling them out.

SK: Is there a place for writers, editors and UI designers to ask the Yahoo! editorial team questions?

CB: You bet.  At Ask an Editor we are happy to respond to questions related to “The Yahoo! Style Guide.”

SK:  Would you recommend that readers go through the entire guide from start to finish, or work through chapters that are only relevant to them?

CB: While you can read it through because it’s so entertaining, my recommendation is to start with chapters or topics that you’re not familiar with. Here are a few starting points:

* Get to the point
* Define your voice
* Construct clear, compelling copy

SK: How can someone who has already been writing web content for several years benefit from the Yahoo! Style Guide?

CB: No matter how experienced, everyone can always improve their skills. “The Yahoo! Style Guide” is both a style guide and a writing manual, accessible enough to be useful for Web users across the world, yet with the authority to meet the needs of editors and communications professionals. The guide is an essential tool for anyone who wants to write for the Internet with clarity and precision.

Associated Content Yahoo! Style Guide Giveaway!

Associated Content is giving away 15 copies of the “Yahoo! Style Guide”!

AC Darnell just released a special assignment that asks you to create a writing tutorial based on one of the lessons from the online Yahoo! Style Guide.

The best submissions will be featured on the @acnews Twitter feed and Associated Content Facebook pages. The top 15 submissions (selected by AC staff and Yahoo! editors) will receive a FREE hardcover copy of the Yahoo! Style Guide, will be spotlighted on the AC blog, and, of course will have lifelong bragging rights.

Good luck AC Contributors!!

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  1. Excellent and very interesting interview! I just claimed the giveaway assignment. I’ve been meaning to pick up a copy of the Y! Style Guide since I first saw mention of it. Free would be good (if I win). 🙂

  2. The online world has evolved since my start in 1996. Y! Style Guide sounds like a dream resource. I’m off to check the assignment desk.

  3. I just saw a copy of the Yahoo! Style Guide in a bookstore, but didn’t buy it because I have a free one coming 😀 I can’t wait!

  4. […] Yahoo! Senior Editorial Director Chris Barr has been around the content block more than a few times. His career in editorial and technology spans more than two decades, beginning with PC World magazine back in the 1980s. Later, he was the founding editor-in-chief of CNET. Recently, Chris co-authored the Yahoo! Style Guide, a must-read for next-generation content developers, Web writers and Associated Content contributors. […]

  5. […] So far, we’ve had some interesting guest speakers including Mandy Jenkins of TBD and Chris Barr of Yahoo! News. I’ve even done some live tweeting.   If you enjoyed this article, please […]

  6. […] Associated Content interview about his book  […]

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