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Worker, know your tools

In a sensible article at 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.



Posted by John McIntyre at 1:17 PM | | Comments (13)


"Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it." -- Samuel Johnson

For the record, I'm not the journalism instructor in question. I'm the opposite, like so:

For the record, I'm not the journalism instructor in question. I'm the opposite, like so:

Sorry to say that I cannot concur with this entry, John. With each stylebook I've had occasion to use, including Chicago, I've read them cover-to-cover.

Yes, you might only have occasion to consult some of the more arcane items once or twice, but it will help to know that these things are, in fact, there.

You might be on a job and wonder if full time is hyphenated or not, and you'll recall that there is an entry on that (even if you don't remember the exact form given). You might recall that there is a discussion of how television program titles are handled, or that there's an entry for "online."

A read-through of the guide, at least once, will alert you to the problem areas you're likely to encounter in practice, and give you a sense of when, and for what sorts of items, you should be consulting the guide.

There's no shortcut for this, no easy way to avoid it. I consider the task part of the responsibility that comes with a desk.

Engineers have no standard professional reference work such as the AP Stylebook to which we can refer. Years ago, there were CRC Handbooks that proved useful though the Internet has supplanted their utility. I still have my copy of CRC Standard Math Tables from college. I refer to it occasionally for math facts. For years, I've used The Little, Brown Handbook for style issues that arise preparing my technical memoranda and email. I don't know if it's the best, but it's better than guessing, which is what many engineers seem to do when writing.

Interesting that you use copying out the dictionary as an example. Copying out a Chinese dictionary, by hand, is apparently not an uncommon task in some Chinese educations. One of the problems with learning a logosyllabic script is that there are so many shapes to learn to write, in conjunction with many other shapes, and one needs a lot of practice.

During my entire career, it never occurred to me to study the style book. When I had a question, I would ask the other editors on the rim. Someone usually knew the answer. If not, someone would pull out the style book.

In response to GSB, and in defense of Mr. McIntyre, there is a world of difference between reading through the stylebook at least once (not a bad idea for the reasons GSB stated) and copying the damned thing by hand (an egregious waste of time and effort). What other course of study, other than written Chinese, would writing out a reference book be considered a good idea?

Here's a better idea to grasp the details of AP style: Practice editing copy, and have your work evaluated. Don't journalism classes and college papers do that anymore?

I agree with Gary K. in that it's important to know what the stylebook contains. If you don't know that certain things are wrong, they might not look like it -- the time, date, place rule, for example. New editors especially benefit from that kind of awareness so they can develop a sense of "red flags" in copy.

But copying the whole book by hand is just excessive.

When I was a copy editor my least-favorite conversations were with what I called the legalists, writers who read the stylebook in an attempt to find spurious justifications for what they wanted to do. I once told a writer he had to remove an ethnic slur from a story because the stylebook said we couldn't use those words. "But it's in a direct quote," he countered. "The stylebook doesn't say it's OK to use those terms if they're in a quote," I pointed out. "Well it doesn't say it's not" was his rejoinder.

Is the time, date and place rule actually in the AP stylebook?

In the days of the Internet. I prefer a more complete set of time, day, date and even occasionally year in Internet listings, particularly calendar listings, because old information comes up along with current information in search engines.

Real life is open book. You don't need to know the details of an item, you merely need to know that the item exists so that you'll know to look it up.

I had a journalism teacher who made us "memorize" the AP stylebook in short chunks at a time, then gave us (open-book, but timed) quizzes on the material. I thought she was an idiot, and she WAS an idiot. But that was 10 years ago and I still have a greater knowledge of the stylebook than almost anyone else I know, even though I've never been a copy editor.

The problem I see with most users of the AP stylebook (and the dictionary, for that matter) is they never even think to open the thing and check it.

Still, I don't think copying a book by hand would actually teach anyone about the contents. Too easy to blindly copy without processing the information. Perhaps it would work as an exercise in penmanship (or plagiarism), but not as a way to learn style.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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