The following was originally published on the University Press staff blog “From the Newsroom“
The look of a newsroom varies according to the organization. Some are bright, open rooms, some are dingy cubicles and some are a mixture of the two. The computers may be PCs or Macs, the layouts may be created in QuarkXpress or InDesign, the cameras may be Canon or Nikon — it’s a question of taste and budget.
But every newsroom — EVERY newsroom — has one thing in common. On shelves or in drawers scattered around, you’ll find an Associated Press Stylebook — the newspaper bible. It’s the industry standard aimed at creating a consistent style of writing, such as when to abbreviate months, when an acronym is acceptable to use and when the names should be spelled out, notes on the Oxford comma and other punctuation, how to use numbers correctly, and even correct spellings.
But it is also so much more.
The Associated Press was established in 1846 and published a style guide for its members. The first publicly available Stylebook was published in 1953 and replaced the 16-page “AP Style Book” and “The AP Copy Book,” also known as “The Red Book,” which was for AP members.
Although the 1953 edition sought to be more than a simple style guide, containing relevant information that reporters might need, the 1977 version is considered the benchmark for today’s publication.
Shawn Moynihan, writing for Editor & Publisher, writes that, “Editors added many new entries and put all of them into alphabetical order, which in turn made consulting the book quicker and easier.”
In Editor & Publisher’s 1977 story on the new book, Ray Erwin writes, “The new style trend is definitely toward simplification. Attorney General and similar titles will not be hyphenated. Weekend, citywide, nationwide and statewide will be written minus hyphens (Webster approves both ways). This is regarded as the biggest change in style under the new dictum.”
The 1953 edition was a mere 62 pages. The 2018 Stylebook is a whopping 638 pages and is also available online. I find, however, that just a quick reach over to thumb through the note in the margins of one of my several print versions is faster and easier than searching online.Erwin quotes Gus Winkler of the APME advisory group saying, “We tried to make The AP Style Book complete enough to answer nearly everything but not so long as to be disregarded and unread…but that is a fine line of demarcation to attempt to establish.”
The girth of The Stylebook has increased over the years through necessity. When the Gulf Wars began in the early ’90s, the book noted the differences in Shia and Sunni muslims (and settled on “Muslim” over “Moslem”), to reflect the new information a reporter might need on a daily basis. In 2008, The Stylebook suddenly swelled with information on stocks, bonds and banks, reflecting the need for daily stories about the global recession.
My mentor, Howard Perkins, always said there were three parts of style — things you should know, things you should remember, and things you should be smart enough to look up.” The things you should “know” — states, numbers, streets, etc. — are fundamentals that are second nature. The things you should “remember” may require a moment’s pause. For everything else, there’s The Stylebook.
When I teach copyediting, I encourage my students not to take separate notes, but to mark their Stylebook with side notes, underlines, tabbed pages, whatever it takes. While there are changes each year, the fundamentals do not vary much and they should look at their Stylebook as a friend they can take with them throughout their career.
In copyediting class, I tell students, “It’s a book about everything.”
And knowing everything should be every good journalist’s goal.
Andy Coughlan is University Press adviser