Writing with Style: Why “The AP Stylebook” Still Matters

As a continuation of my most recent blog post, part of following the rules of being a good journalist, or a good PR writer, is understanding how to apply AP style. The AP Stylebook is the “journalist’s bible,” just as the Chicago Manual of Style is the bible for book editors and the MLA Style Manual is essential for scholars. Writers have been using style manuals for as long as they have been writing, not only to enforce the rules of good grammar, but to help codify usage in order to promote a common understanding and avoid confusion or misunderstanding.

I received an e-mail yesterday from a good friend and associate whom I had not heard from for a while. It was a short message, and I understood the frustration expressed between the lines:

“Does anyone follow AP style guidelines anymore? It seems that most people have no idea what they are and don’t care about them anyway. I can remember when any company (especially a public company) was fanatical about following AP style guidelines.”

It’s too true. With the explosion in electronic communications, everyone is writing more, whether it’s e-mail, blog posts, Facebook posts, or text messages. As a result, a lot of the rules of good grammar and style are going out the window in favor of shortcuts and TLAs (three-letter acronyms). Although recent research says that texting does not affect student’s writing, I have to believe that the sheer volume of written communications that we all have to deal with every day is blurring the lines between casual writing and formal or business writing. That’s why we all need to be reminded of the rules and adopt style guides, especially today.

As a PR professional, I care about style guidelines, and I have always followed the AP Stylebook. When I get into a discussion about the use of commas or why to spell out percent with a client, I can point to AP style as my authority. It saves a lot of needless discussion, and actually promotes good writing. (And if you are on the go, there is even an iPhone app that gives you access to AP style anywhere, anytime.)

So whether you are writing press releases, white papers, case studies, reports, or anything for public review, use a stylebook. In addition to the AP Stylebook, I have a few other sources that can help you become a better writer:

Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style – Although this writer’s guide dates back to 1918, it still offers some great writing tips and helps clarify some of the most common grammatical mistakes. If you haven’t looked at your Strunk and White for a while, it might be time to get reacquainted.

Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing – I must confess that I am a fan of Mignon Fogarty, whose nom d’ecrit is Grammar Girl. I listen to her podcasts from iTunes and she has offers good advice on how to deal with common writing challenges, and I follow her on Facebook. You might also want to check out her new book, The Grammar Devotional.

Wired Style: Principles of English Usage in the Digital Age – I am not sure that this book is still in print, but Wired magazine professes to be a harbinger of all things digital, and if you are writing about technology you want to have some kind of stylistic source. Wired Style doesn’t cover everything, and it disagrees with other sources (e.g. email which is preferred by Wired, versus e-mail , which is preferred by AP), but it’s a place to start. When it comes to technical terms, I look to credible sources, such as Wired, InformationWeek, or the New York Times, and look for a precedent for usage.

And don’t rely too heavily on your electronic grammar checker. At one time, as an experiment, I decided to take a paper I was working on for my Master’s degree in literature and submit it in two forms; one that I manually reviewed and edited, and one that I ran through the computer grammar checker. She told me that the errors introduced by the grammar checker would have meant a failing grade. If you want to be a better writer, learn the rules, use common sense, and think before you type.

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