Why style matters

In journalism, there’s style, and then there’s style.

The style to which you probably aspire is a distinctive style in your writing — what’s often called the writer’s voice. It’s the personal flair in choosing your words and expressing your ideas that sets you apart from every other writer.

That kind of style is not your concern just yet. This semester, your job is to master to master the basics of journalism: the formats and skills that, with time and practice, should become automatic, freeing your to write in your own personal style. That comes later.

The other kind is the style set out in what should be one of your most important tools: the Associated Press Stylebook, which the CUNY J-school has adopted. In May, the print edition of the AP Stylebook marked its 60th anniversary. Oops! According to New York Times style, I’ve just used marked incorrectly. (“How was it marked?” an old-time editor would have sneered. “With a Magic Marker?”)

Every professional publication follows a particular stylebook — “a book giving rules and examples of usage, punctuation, and typography, used in preparation of copy for publication,” according to the Free Dictionary (thefreedictionary.com).   That’s a good, concise definition. A stylebook tells you things like how to render dates, which states or months may be abbreviated and which may not, whether to use courtesy titles like Mr. and Ms., etc. Each publications adopts a style for many reasons, among them consistency, conciseness and clarity.

For students whose native language is not English, the stylebook can teach a lot about the language. Confused about possessives? Check the stylebook; it has a long list addressing various cases. Unsure if you’re using words like “bipolar” or “schizophrenic” correctly?  See the recent entry on mental illness. Wondering whether punctuation marks go inside or outside quotation marks? It’s in the stylebook.

There are many stylebooks — some for journalists; some for academics and book writers, like the Chicago Manual of Style; some for specialized fields, like the APA Publication Manual in psychology or the CSE manual for scientists. In my own journalism career, I’ve learned and used the AP Stylebook, The Boston Globe Stylebook (which I helped rewrite, as chairman of the F through O committee), and two incarnations of the New York Times stylebook. Why have I capped some of those titles and not others, and put none of them in quotation marks? Ask the stylebook.

Notice that nasty word in the definition: “rules.” Too many reporters dislike rules and so never bother to learn the stylebook; “the copy desk will fix it,” they sniff. That attitude is shortsighted. The copy desk exists to make you, as a reporter, look good, and you want the people on it to be your friends. If copy editors spend too much of their time fixing your style, they’ll have less time — and patience — to read for accuracy and clarity.  If your copy shows you know and care about style, they’ll love you.

In Craft, think as your teachers as editors. The more your copy follows AP style, the better they’ll like it.

You don’t have to memorize your stylebook (though much of it will seep into your brain with repeated use); it’s a reference book. And don’t take -book part too seriously. The online version is actually better. It’s constantly being updated, and in this digital age, it’s always at your fingertips. As a subscriber, you’ll get the updates by e-mail. Last year, for example, AP compiled and circulated a very helpful primer of U.S. election terminology.

So make friends with your stylebook! And with me. Bring your problems with English to office hours, this semester on Monday afternoons, roughly noon to 5, in cubicle 404F. For appointments at other times, e-mail me at diane.nottle@journalism.cuny.edu. Welcome to 40th Street!



  1. How to use this blog | English for Journalists - September 13, 2017

    […] to your dictionary and the AP Style guide  — not a substitute. (For advice on how to use AP style as a tool in refining your English, click here.) Since it’s written as time permits, between […]