Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Professor Walker's Rules to Write By

AP Style and Other Rules

The journalist who does not know AP style basics will be branded by coworkers as an amateur. Here are some bare basics you will find in the AP Stylebook. Plus, I’ve added some basic rules to write by. Please study these, learn them and use them. (These few rules right here will go a long way toward making you a writer the pros will pay attention to.)

--Avoid run-on sentences; one thought to a sentence.

--Don’t put a comma after the last “and” in a series.

--Don’t use titles on second reference. Always refer to people by their last names on second reference, even if it is the pope or the president.

--Avoid putting people’s names in leads (unless it is a feature that begins with an anecdote).

--Most leads are one sentence long.

--Avoid most adjectives, including examples such as “exciting” or “adorable.”

--Keep tenses in line with each other; don’t say “the group they.” A group is an “it” because it’s singular.

--Know the difference between plural and possessive. The cars were on the road (plural). The car’s tire was flat (possessive).

--Tell a story; don’t just relay facts. (This is hard!)

--Quote your sources in your story; don’t put a source list or cite references.

--Here is the form for quotes: “That Professor Walker is a real nitpicker,” said a student. Note that the quote ends with a comma, close quote, said and then source.

--Avoid using full quotes in leads; partial quotes are okay (even good sometimes).

--Trust your instincts as to what is interesting to you; remember, you are the voice for your reader, who likely knows nothing about what you’re writing about.

--Avoid clichés like the plague (cliché alert!); don’t write how you think it’s supposed to sound. Be straightforward.

--Show, don’t tell. Let your reader decide. For example, you could say, The dog was a mangy stray that could have bitten the child outside the pre-school. Or, you could say, The medium-size dog with matted, dirty fur and a hungry scowl approached the toddler as the tike stood unsteadily in his bulky jeans on the sidewalk outside the pre-school.

--In general, the rule for using numbers is this: Use words to spell out numbers from zero through nine; use numerals to refer to numbers 10 and above. So: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, etc. That stands until you get to 999,999. Then, it's a combination of numbers and words for 1 million, 1.5 million, 2 million, etc. Don’t begin sentences with numbers unless you spell them out.

--Spell out percent and cents, and use them with numerals, even if the number is smaller than nine: 1 percent, 8 percent, 12 percent, 300 percent. Also: 1 cent, 6 cents, 24 cents, 99 cents.

--Never spell out "dollars." Use the dollar sign, along with numerals: $1, $4.50, $16, $1,000, $100,000, $1 million.

--Capitalize titles when they come before a name: I voted for President Bartlett. But do not capitalize titles if they come after a name: Danna Walker, an American University professor, teaches classes online. Likewise, do not capitalize titles if they appear without a name: The vice president often wants to become president.

--Abbreviate state names when they follow a city in a sentence. Note that AP abbreviations are different from postal abbreviations: The University of Maryland is in College Park, Md. There are eight states that you should never abbreviate: Alaska, Hawaii, Iowa, Idaho, Maine, Ohio, Texas, Utah. Example: I traveled from Arlington, Texas, to Boulder, Colo., for my vacation.

--Abbreviate "avenue," "boulevard" and "street" when they follow a numbered address: I live at 444 Kenilworth Ave. Do not use the abbreviation if there's no number: I live on Kenilworth Avenue. Do not abbreviate "road," "terrace," "circle" or other addresses.

--Abbreviate months when they are used with a date: I was born on Aug. 16. Do not abbreviate if there is no date: I was born in August. There are five months you should never abbreviate: March, April, May, June, July: I was born on July 4.

--Use commas sparingly. Generally, you use them to enclose clauses. Do not use them in a series: red, white and blue. Avoid colons, semi-colons and other formal types of punctuation.

--The AP Stylebook is a guide to consistency, which is important in any printed piece. Inconsistencies look like mistakes, and mistakes kill your credibility.

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