In a recent column I noted that writers and editors of The Westside Express (and other newspapers) are required to follow the AP Stylebook. Most of that column was focused on small but important details, like the appropriate use of commas and quotation marks.
In today’s column I’d like to focus on another aspect of AP style–the nature of writing for a newspaper, specifically, the content and style of an article.
The original AP “Writing Handbook,” published in 1951, with a total of 39 pages (as compared to today’s “AP Stylebook” of 612 pages), devoted a large portion of its space to writing style, as noted in an article by Merrill Perlman in the Columbia Journalism Review.
The authors of the booklet said that their goal was “to make Associated Press writers better writers,” emphasizing the need to be reader-friendly. It encouraged newspaper writers to “inform the reader clearly and quickly, completely and interestingly.”
The booklets also talked about the importance of “the lead,” the first few sentences of a news report, and said that every lead “should be clear, incisive and interesting,” so that the reader would be “impelled to continue.”
The handbook added that the writer must not “delay him [the reader] with wordiness, confuse him with imperfect sentence structure or discourage him with dull, technical phraseology.”
The booklet emphasizes writing directly and concisely: “Nothing strains an editor’s patience more than unnecessary words” and warns the writer to be careful with adjectives, citing this example: “An adjective can create a redundancy: so-and-so died of SEVERE burns today . . . (who dies of a scorched finger?).”
The handbook goes on to say that news writers might be expected to understand grammar and sentence structure, yet “undeniably some do not. Awkward, inept or ambiguous phrasing provides the strongest evidence. The words are all there, perhaps, but in the wrong order.”
My friend and colleague Kim Yancey, who was a full-time editor for many years, has told me many stories from his experience that corroborate this contention.
“I once hired a reporter,” he said, “who one day looked at his keyboard and asked me, ‘What’s that strange key that has a period above a comma?’ I told him not to worry about it: ‘It’s only an optional key. I suggest you not use it.’”
From my experience, as both a volunteer editor and longtime college English instructor, I can readily agree with the 1951 “AP Writing Handbook.”
I do believe, as I have said in a previous column, that all people are natural writers and storytellers. All people like to tell or share stories, and writing is essentially converting oral accounts into written words.
Having said that, however, I need to add that writing well (clearly, concisely, smoothly, with organization and coherence) is an acquired skill.
Writing for a newspaper is similar in many ways to other kinds of explanatory or persuasive writing. The rules of grammar and logic are the same, and clarity and smoothness are similarly valued.
However, writing for a newspaper is different in many ways from writing an essay for school or work.
For one thing, paragraphs must be shorter. A standard “book” paragraph in a long newspaper column looks like a gray blob, not at all enticing to the reader. Often revising a reporter’s “book paragraph” for a newspaper simply entails breaking a long paragraph into two or three paragraphs, with no more than a few sentences each.
In addition, writers in contexts other than newspapers can often begin their writing in a casual way and gradually build to the main point. A writer of a news story (as opposed to a column or feature) must tell the reader as quickly as possible the main point, the heart of the story.
All of these qualities of good newspaper writing are particularly apt for The Westside Express because it is doing something few if any other newspapers have done–rely on volunteers or stringers to provide news stories.
No one who has written for The Westside Express so far is a professional journalist. In fact, no one, that I know of, has been trained as a journalist. Therefore, editors like Kim, Courtney and me have to gradually explain to TWE correspondents how to write for a newspaper.
The Westside Express has been fortunate in recruiting many people who are not only good writers but quick learners as well. Correspondents like Malina Duran and Prishaa Vala have learned quickly the importance of determining the leads of their stories on council, commission and school board meetings.
Overall, TWE editors need to do a lot of editing–to make sure there’s a good lead, to create short paragraphs and to ensure what the reporter has written would make sense to a reader not familiar with the context of the story.
And editors have to make sure each article follows the AP Handbook in cases like the use of commas and appropriate spelling and capitalization.
For all of these reasons, I’m grateful that first Kim Yancey and then Courtney Andrade have worked side by side with me as editors of the Westside Express. I’m also glad that Dennis Wyatt and Sharon Hoffman are up the chain in the publication process to catch anything that Courtney or I might miss.
The next challenge for The Westside Express is to find and recruit future writers and editors. Many of our writers are students and so is, Courtney, a TWE editor. Most will eventually leave our team and move on.
Many are community volunteers who may need to stop writing for TWE if their life situation changes. And some, like me, are in their seventies.
What The Westside Express needs are more people, especially younger people, who believe in the critical importance of a local newspaper (in print and/or digital format) and who respect readers enough to deliver news, features and columns that are relevant, accurate and reader-friendly.
Let’s hope more people who believe in local journalism come forward so that The Westside Express can be sustained for many years to come.