As a journalism major, I quickly learned that there was more to professional writing than loving the craft.
Writing, reporting, storytelling for a public audience required as much technical savvy as it did creative drive. It required research skills, and grammar rules, and interview techniques.
And a little something called AP style.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Associated Press Stylebook, it’s the “journalist’s bible.” It’s a reference book that defines rules on grammar, spelling, punctuation and usages. Writers, editors, students and public relations specialists find it invaluable.
So, back to journalism class. The Stylebook is divided into chapters alphabetically, and each week, we had to memorize an entire chapter of style rules. We were quizzed each Friday. No Stylebooks allowed; just pure memorization.
I get sweaty palms thinking about it.
Because of that (and other ruthless editing and reporting courses), I’m still pretty darn confident in my AP style knowledge – 12 years later (eek).
And while rules have definitely changed since I memorized AP style (the “new Internet guide and glossary” section in my copy is pretty hilarious), the basics of clear writing and reporting still hold true.
Now I know grammar rules are made to broken online (somewhat, people), but sticking to some basic style guidelines and editing rules will make your content more professional and polished.
Here are the top AP style lessons bloggers and content marketers need to learn, today:
Did you know brand name is the non-legal term for service mark or trademark? Well, whatever you call them, they should be capitalized when used. Example: She fished a Kleenex from her purse. AP Style only wants you to use brand names if they are essential to a story, but I’ll leave that one up to you.
- Proper Names: We all know that you should capitalize proper nouns (i.e., nouns that identify a specific person, place or thing – think, John or England), but you should also capitalize common nouns like party, river, street and west when they are part of the full name for a person, place or thing. For example, Democratic Party, West Virginia.
- Derivatives: Deriva-wha? Ignore the scary grammar term and remember this: if a word derives from a proper noun and still depends on it for meaning (American, Christianity, Shakespearean), capitalize it. If it no longer depends on it for meaning (french fries, manhattan cocktail, venetian blind), go lowercase.
- Titles: Capitalize someone’s title if it’s used before his or her name (Principal Richard Belding), but lowercase it if it’s a job description (Richard Belding, principal of Bayside High)
- Directions: Lowercase north, south, east, west when they indicate compass direction. But if you’re talking about a region (she’s from the Midwest; it’s a Southern college), capitalize.
You know you’re a nerd when you have a favorite style rule. This is mine: Use commas to separate elements in a series, but do not put a comma before the conjunction in a simple series: The flag is red, white and blue.
However, in a complex series of phrases, a comma may be needed: The main points of the blog post are to introduce AP style, teach bloggers and content marketers the basic rules, and help writers apply these rules to their work.
This one is also about capitalization, but it’s my favorite so it warrants its own entry here. What are composition titles? They’re book titles, computer game titles (but not software titles, for some reason), movie titles, opera titles, play titles, poem titles, song titles, television program titles, and the titles of lectures, speeches and works of art. (Phew!)
OK, here’s the lowdown on how to capitalize them:
- Capitalize the main words, including prepositions and conjunctions of four or more letters (for example, after)
- Capitalize an article (the, a, an) or words of fewer than four letters if it’s the first or last word in a title
- Put quotation marks around composition titles (who knew, right?); except for the Bible and books that are catalogs or reference materials
You don’t often get to say this about swears: Damn it is proper.
Use it instead of dammit. And if you’re adding god into the mix, keep it lowercase, please (goddamn). But let AP warn you: “Like other profanity, it should be avoided unless there is a compelling reason.” Well, I find this really compelling, damn it.
I know it looks fancier with the little st, nd, rd and th, but dates should be written in figures only, without these cute little add-ons. So, August 25.
There are many rules for using numbers in your writing, but here are the rules that are most commonly broken (in my opinion):
- Spell out a numeral at the beginning of a sentence. However, if the sentence starts with a large number, consider rewriting it. (Wrong: 955 people went to the fair. Right: There were 955 people in attendance.) An exception: a calendar year can start a sentence. (1980 was a fabulous year.)
- Spell out expressions, such as thanks a million! or a thousand times no!.
- Spell out whole numbers below 10, use figures for 10 and above (I have two websites and 100 blog posts.).
- Use numerals for age (I have a 5-year-old daughter.).
- Once you make you millions, you’ll have to learn a new rule: it’s written $1 million, $2 million, etc.
Percent is one word. When writing out percentages, use figures and the word percent: 5 percent, 100 percent. Repeat percent with each figure if you’re talking about a range: 4 percent to 5 percent.
The AP takes quotations very seriously – as they should. Their advice: “Never alter quotations even to correct minor grammatical errors or word usage. Casual minor tongue slips may be removed by using ellipses but even that should be done with extreme caution.” They continue: “In general, avoid fragmentary quotes. If a speaker’s words are clear and concise, favor the full quote.”
Unless you’re talking about the Summer Olympics or something else that uses a season as part of its name, seasons (spring, summer, winter, fall) and their derivatives (summertime) are lowercase.
Thank you, AP Style, for pointing out: “Women should receive the same treatment as men in all areas of coverage. Physical descriptions, sexist references, demeaning stereotypes and condescending phrases should not be used.” Any questions?
Do I have you totally hooked on AP style yet? (I’ll just pretend you all said yes.)
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