“The code is more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.”
— Capt. Barbosa explaining the Pirate Code to Elizabeth Swan in “Pirates of the Caribbean.”
I sometimes worry that former newspaper colleagues would be horrified to learn that I’ve abandoned some of the basic writing rules we’d been taught since we were cub reporters.
Then I remember that I don’t give a crap. My work, my “job,” is to communicate, not follow rules. And as Capt. Barbosa put it in one of my favorite movie lines, the rules are more like guidelines anyway.
What? No Rules?
Now, before you get all schoolmarm on me, I still preach that to write well, you must learn the rules. If you can’t assemble a series of letters to form correctly spelled words, no one will understand you. Learn sentence structure, you must, says Yoda. If you don’t use periods and commas in the right places, your readers might not distinguish one thought from another.
The rules for writing I’ve followed most of my life have come from two sources, beyond all that grammar stuff we learned in school. The first is “The Elements of Style,” by James Strunk and E.B. White. There’s no better or more concise guide to writing.
The second source for writing rules was the “Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law.” A large part of a newspaper writer’s education revolves around learning rules codified in the AP Stylebook, and it sat on every reporter’s and editor’s desk right next to a dictionary.
Setting a Standard for Journalists, and Me
First published for the public in 1953, the AP Stylebook was written to standardize the writing of reporters around the world and make life a little easier for editors who were reading reports from Burbank to the Outer Banks. It includes a bunch of rules you probably didn’t know you needed. Here’s just one of the stylebook’s thousands of entries, from the AP’s Twitter feed:
Because newspapers across the country were members of the Associated Press and published AP articles, they also adopted the stylebook’s rules for locally written articles. And so, every writer and editor studied it and memorized as much as they could.
How Much Space Can We Save?
Standardization wasn’t the only reason for some AP Style rules. Space for newspaper articles always was at a premium, and some rules were made to help newspapers save newsprint. Abbreviations are the best example. The names of most states were abbreviated, and “United States” — when used as a modifier as in “U.S. Agriculture Department” — was always abbreviated.
Except for May, June and July, months were abbreviated, but only when used with a date. (January has 31 days, including Jan. 15.) There were rules for numbers — one through nine were spelled out, and numerals were used for all other numbers until you got to the millions, billions and trillions. $999,999 was correct, but $1,000,000 should be written as $1 million.
I’ve spent the last 20 years working not in print, but on the internet (a word that AP used to capitalize, by the way). Saving space isn’t a priority. So except for consistency’s sake, does it matter if I write December 14 or Dec. 14? Does it matter if I write “One ring” or “1 ring?” “Pennsylvania” or “Pa.?”
Not. One. Damn. Bit. And let me tell you, it was hard to write that sentence (those sentences?), even though I’m reformed.
Consistency, Not Absolute Correctness
With my journalism background, I applied the AP Style to editing for social media. But I soon learned that new marketers and our clients had little awareness of writing style guides. After a few years of insisting that things be done a certain way, I began instead to push for consistency for each client. I battled against the use of exclamation points but finally settled on complaining only when they were overused.
The point of all this isn’t “rules are made to be broken.” It’s more like “the same rules don’t always apply across every situation.” In my case, I’ve learned that when your frame of reference changes (writing for the internet instead of print), you need to make sure the rules you follow are relevant, worth following, and worth arguing about.
When it comes to writing, my number one rule is clarity. As long as your message is easy to understand, the rules are more like guidelines.
Mark Whittaker, a Pittsburgh-based online marketer, helps small businesses and start-ups find customers with search and social media advertising, content development and digital marketing strategy. Write to him at mark (at) markwhittaker.com and subscribe to his bi-weekly email.