AP style revisited

In my last post, I said I preferred the Chicago Manual of Style to the Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law 2013. The Chicago manual contains lots of detailed examples from different disciplines, and it is well indexed. The AP stylebook seems thin on specific examples, and finding material in the print version is difficult. But just when I thought my preferences were set in concrete, along came a supplemental handbook that cracked my resolve.

Working with Words: A Handbook for Media Writers and Editors by University of Missouri journalism professors Brian S. Brooks, James L. Pinson, and Jean Gaddy Wilson provides plenty of
detailed information on grammar, sentence structure, and journalistic style. The handbook is designed to help journalism students create engaging print, radio, television, and online
communications, but it is useful for anyone who wants to connect with readers, viewers,
or listeners.

AP style expanded and explained

The authors wrote the book because there was “no single, comprehensive resource a member of the working press could turn to” to answer questions about grammar, usage, punctuation, spelling, and common writing practices. They wrote this text to elaborate on the AP stylebook. The handbook is divided into several topics:

  • Grammar and usage
  • Punctuation and spelling
  • Style
  • Writing methods for different media

It also includes an appendix with summaries of material in the first four parts of the book,
bibliographies, and a very useful index. The inside back cover lists 20 common errors in news stories, with page references to the authors’ discussions of those errors.

What I like about this book

I prefer reading fiction to reading style guides (call me crazy), but this handbook is actually fun to read. I’m not a journalist, even though I know something about “inverted pyramid” style and the need to write simply and clearly. I am, however, an avid reader of the newspaper and,
perhaps to my discredit, a big consumer of television and online news. So I read the detailed formulae and examples on writing for different media with interest, sometimes nodding my head when I recognized a method of presenting material that seemed familiar.

I like the outside-the-box ideas for changing the rules when necessary. Reversing the traditional order of a news story, for example, can startle the reader to attention. And I like the what-not-to-do lists, which are quite lengthy. I have to admit recognizing clichés that I have used over the years – starting an article with a question, a dictionary definition, a “you might think/think again” lead (and that’s the short list). Thankfully I have never written anything that began “Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”

Finally, I find the chapters on non-print media very interesting. I have written for radio (and it was difficult), but I always wondered how one structures a television story. In the online media chapters the authors discuss what does and does not transfer from print, how to vet online sources to ensure correctness, how to layer and chunk online stories for readers who generally scan, how to edit your own copy, and how to write for social media – including blogs! I suspect that the authors will have more to say on social media and online communications, with their special ethical issues, in future editions of this book.

Divided loyalties

So now, even though I continue to be loyal to the weighty Chicago Manual of Style when it comes to technical writing, I’m beginning to think that AP style is a little more fun to use
when you aren’t bound by the conventions of specialized technical communication. And I
recommend Working with Words to anyone who wants to communicate information in a clear,
compelling way.

Note: The academic press Bedford St. Martin’s (bedfordstmartins.com) publishes Working with Words and associated print and online exercises. 

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