The Associated Press (AP) Stylebook outlines a specific style of writing and is used by most media professionals. With its focus on consistency, clarity, accuracy and brevity, it provides instructions on multiple formatting choices, and it is the writing bible for most journalists.
As PR professionals, it’s our job to know the rules of journalistic writing inside out, but even we make mistakes sometimes in our initial drafts. The dilemma with AP Style is understanding and remembering when it is similar to other writing styles and when it’s different. It can contradict what we learned in school, which makes it difficult to keep things straight.
I, for one, am a big culprit in a few of these, so I figured we could all use some brushing up. Here a few oft-used formatting errors:
- Capitalizing job titles – It may come as a surprise – and annoyance to those who are very proud of their titles – but formal titles are not always capitalized. In fact, the only time they are capitalized in AP Style is when the title is used immediately before a name, such as Mayor Briley or Company President John Smith. However, if the title comes after the name as a descriptor set off by commas, it would read David Briley, mayor of Nashville, or John Smith, president, with the title in lowercase. Also keep it lowercase if you are using any title in a general sense, such as “the mayor” or “the president of the company.”
- Using the numbers 1-9 – AP style mandates that any number under 10 be spelled out, pretty much regardless of the context (dimensions, quantity, miles, etc.) – except in this specific case when used in a section title or piece title. If you want to write out the number 325,479 in words, be my guest, but it would not be AP Style – or time efficient for that matter.
- Using acronyms before spelling them out – Sometimes as experts on certain subjects, we forget that often our audience is not an expert. Therefore, in AP Style, any acronym must be written out upon the first use. Indicate in parentheses the acronym you plan to use the rest of the article, so it is abundantly clear what you are writing about (as I did in the first sentence of this article).
- Books vs. periodicals vs. other compositions – With so many different works of writing of different lengths, from novels to periodicals to movie scripts, who can remember what titles are in quotes or bold or italic or underlined or some combination thereof? AP Style says to use quotation marks around the titles of books, songs, television shows, computer games, poems, lectures, speeches and works of art. Names of magazines, newspapers, the Bible or books that are catalogues of reference materials do not need quotes – they can be written plainly with initial capitalizations. And the biggest thing to remember is that NONE of them are italicized or underlined (so long, MLA format).
- Cities and states in datelines – All press releases and many articles start with a dateline, which includes the city and/or state where the news happened. I say “and/or” because there are actually 30 cities expressly listed in the AP Stylebook that don’t need the state to be indicated. Otherwise, you must list both. So if you work in Denver, for example, you can skip this step.
- Double-spacing after a sentence – Don’t do it! It’s completely unnecessary, especially in an industry that counts every letter and character. The double space harkens back to the days of typewriters when readability wasn’t always guaranteed, but with computers and proportional fonts, the double-space belongs on the antique shelf too.
- Using the % symbol – Another one to just eliminate from your writing repertoire, you always write out the word “percent” in AP Style. End of story.
With its focus on consistency, clarity, accuracy and brevity, it provides instructions on multiple formatting choices, and it is the writing bible for most journalists.
- The Oxford comma – This dreaded little mark could get you in trouble one day if you’re not careful, especially if you enter a debate between academics and journalists. Without it, your point could get a little fuzzy if the sentence is not phrased well, like in Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty’s example. The style guide suggests leaving it out in a simple series – such as “apples, pears and peaches” – but they actually suggest including it if part of the series also contains a conjunction – such as math, Spanish, English language and linguistics, and art. However, while AP Style doesn’t expressly forbid it, many choose not to use it and instead choose to reword the sentence to clarify. To make sure your sentence works and can’t be misconstrued, it’s smart to read it in list form a few times.
While you probably won’t be burned at the stake for making small errors, it’s always a good idea to keep your AP Stylebook handy when you need to get down to the nitty gritty. When in doubt, the guide will give you the correct answer, and eventually, these rules will become second nature.