Style should be an open book

A recent article on the Poynter Institute’s website took on the question of style, as in AP, Chicago, etc. I was interviewed for the story, and my viewpoint is that style depends on audience.

What surprised me most in the article was the anecdote in the lead. Apparently, somewhere out there, a journalism professor is requiring students to transcribe the AP Stylebook by hand. The intent of the assignment is to get students to memorize every entry in the stylebook.

The approach in my editing class is the opposite. Every assignment is open book — as in open stylebook, both AP and the stylebook of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill. The objective is to get students accustomed to using stylebooks, figuring out how they are organized and applying the entries to news stories.

My students and I also spend time discussing how a stylebook is different from a dictionary and how some editors use stylebooks other than AP. We also do an exercise in which we resolve unsettled style questions.

My intent with these discussions and exercises is to help students see that style is often subjective. It changes with the times and with the audience.

Memorizing a stylebook seems like a pointless task. That’s particularly true with the AP Stylebook, which issues a new edition every year.

Besides, a newsroom is always open book. Why shouldn’t a classroom be? A managing editor never takes stylebooks away from the staff and demands that writers and editors work from memory.

The latest version of the AP Stylebook, by the way, includes 16 pages on food names and definitions, including “sashimi” and “ghee.” Rather than transcribing that section, perhaps students could eat their way through it. Yum!

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3 thoughts on “Style should be an open book

  1. I would love to ask that journalism professor obscure AP questions and see if he/she can answer them. One thing I love about working in trade publishing is that, while we try to keep to Chicago, we see it as a potentially flexible style that allows us to keep the reader’s interest in the forefront rather than taking a more fundamentalist literal interpretation.

  2. Whenever I’ve taught editing, I give AP Style quizzes, open book but timed — we do work on deadline. Only half of the sentences contain mistakes, though, because one of the most important skills an editor should have is knowing when to leave something alone.

  3. LisaMc :
    Whenever I’ve taught editing, I give AP Style quizzes, open book but timed — we do work on deadline. Only half of the sentences contain mistakes, though, because one of the most important skills an editor should have is knowing when to leave something alone.

    Gee whiz. You mean an editor isn’t supposed to change every word to the editor’s personal whim? Why do you need an editor, then?

    (For those of you whose sarcasm detectors need a new battery, that was not meant to be serious. Only descriptive of some editors.)

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