Letting Go of AP Style: Journalism vs. Writing for the Web

images courtesy of joanjettandtheblackhearts.tumblr.com & what-would-joan-jett-do.tumblr.com

Sure, journalists make the best content marketers. We enjoy asking the hard questions, and we laugh at what you laypeople consider “tight” deadlines. But what happens when you take a J-school vet, and put her to work writing for the web?

Gratitude, first of all, to no longer be working in a dying industry. But also renegotiation of styles and structures that were preached and practiced and deeply ingrained nearly a decade ago (gawd, I’m old).

Bullet points, calls to action, SEO. It’s all newfangled mojo for newspaper journalists.

The hardest habit to break?

AP Style.

Understanding AP Style: The Journalism Bible… or Cult?

I’m not sure how many non-journos even know what AP Style is, but let’s just say that it’s a set of standards for journalistic writing, akin to MLA or Chicago or AMA Style.

Break the rules, and your editor will whip you behind the proverbial shed.

The Associated Press Stylebook is updated annually to guide punctuation, grammar, principles and practices. We used to lug around these 400-page tomes, but now turn to the AP Style app, to answer such questions as:

  • Does the university president’s title come before or after her name?
  • Should that number be spelled out or represented in numerals?
  • When and where should California be abbreviated into CA vs. Calif.?
  • What about em dashes?
  • Percent or %?
  • Q&A or Q-and-A?
  • Is “French” capitalized before fries?
  • Is it ever OK to call him Smokey the Bear, as opposed to Smokey Bear? (No. Never.)

These are all pressing issues to which AP Style provides clear-cut, enforceable answers… many of which are flat-out counterintuitive to a user’s best interests.

As a web writer (and reader, really, first and foremost), I value content that is scannable and strong, and tailored to the audience. So why would I ever spell out “percent” or the number “seven”? Why use “more than” when “over” is more concise? Spatial relationships be damned! Down with AP Style! Damn the man. Save the Empire.

What Would Joan Jett Do? Go Rogue

Like any set of rules, AP Style’s rules can feel entirely arbitrary. Particularly as the medium changes from yesteryear’s daily newspaper to the Create Once, Publish Everywhere model of present and future.

At its core, writing for the web is about putting users first — which is totally antithetical to standardization that stems from optimization for “the wire service,” right? As web writers, we’re writing for readers, not for the Associated Press news agency.

When I doubt, I usually I ask myself, “What Would Joan Jett Do?”

In work situations for awhile that became, “What Would AP Style Mandate?” And now that I’m writing for the web I live by, “What Best Serves the Audience?”

The answer: Not (always) AP Style.

*This post has been endorsed by Smokey the Bear.