Worker, know your tools
In a sensible article at Poynter.org this week on the uses of stylebooks, Jojo Malig opened with a mention of a journalism instructor who had his students copy out the Associated Press Stylebook by hand, the better to grasp the details of AP style.
Not ever having taken a journalism course myself, I know only indirectly about malpractice in journalism schools—from the people who tell me that students are still being taught how to count headlines by hand (as if a navigation class demanded proficiency with the astrolabe) or from the evidence of writers who continue to uphold the bogus split-verb prohibition.
I’d like to think that the stylebook-copying instructor is apocryphal, or retired, or cavorting in the company of the blessed rather than wasting his students’ time and wrists.
Yes, anyone who uses a stylebook should have a working knowledge of the basics policies on capitalization, abbreviation, numbers, and the like. But stylebooks contain information that you will need once or twice a year, or once every three or four years, or never. That’s why they are reference books; you are meant to look things up when you need to. Imagine an instructor requiring students to copy out the dictionary to improve their orthography, or the almanac to increase their store of general knowledge.
Better to know the purpose of a reference book or website, what matters it covers, and how it is organized. When you have a question, you want to get to the place that will furnish an answer with the minimum of time and frustration.
Reserve the space in your head for the things you must urgently need to know day to day. Everything else you can look up.