Lauren Shields

AP style check: helpful innovation or crutch?


Martin-Wilbourn Partners

As a content editor for my university’s yearbook, I am constantly running into writers’ AP style errors. Though it isn’t quite in my job description to search for and correct those errors—that being the job of the copy editor—I find myself doing it anyway. Why? I love AP style. There, I said it.

As a journalism student since junior year of high school, I am constantly practicing my style and grammar. But it wasn’t until my sophomore year of college that I truly fell in love with the concept of AP style. Maybe it was because, before that year, I had never really written a story that required me to look something up in the AP Stylebook. Or, it could’ve been because I had a teacher who, not only enforced AP style as if our lives depended upon it, but who also became my mentor.

A former editor for the Detroit Free Press, Joe Grimm inspired me. He taught us to be curious, observant and always precise. He would not stand for a fact error or an AP Style slip. He even created an AP Style cheatsheet for us. Though some (lazier) students considered his methods harsh, I considered his class one of the most beneficial I have ever taken. Joe Grimm and his class are what brought me to the realization that I want to be an editor after graduation.

So, here I am now. I am a content editor for the Red Cedar Log, set to be the copy editor next year (my time to shine) and I am taking Grimm’s copy editing class. Along with this, another one of my mentors, Amy Haimerl, offered a select few students editor positions for her media innovations class. With this editing experience, along with the media innovations class that I am currently in, I had an idea.

What if there was an AP Style check?

Now, I know what people might be thinking: that would never work. But, hear me out. Based on some research I have done with a variety of editors, I realize there will have to be some qualifications.

“It should be customizable by local outlets for exceptions or things like U.P., which are important locally but not in the AP stylebook,” wrote Grimm. “The stylebook might even be an add on to the dictionary checker so that everything is checked at once.”

I’d have to agree. The AP Style check that I propose is one that is a software that newsrooms may purchase and download to their computers as an addition to Microsoft Office. It could be considered a hybrid of Word’s spell check and the AP online engine that many use already, but that checks for simple AP style errors as one types. During the installation process, the software would ask for the newsroom’s location, along with other details, to further personalize the checking functions.

With a new stylebook every year, this function would keep reporters and editors more educated on current style, and keep them from making simple mistakes. For example, last fall one of my co-editors and I debated for a near two minutes about how to handle state names in a story. I eventually had to look it up in the book to prove to her that state names are no longer abbreviated, but rather spelled out—a change made in 2014.With an AP Style check, if a state name were abbreviated, it would simply underline it in red to alert the writer that it is incorrect. Upon clicking the error, a message would pop up explaining why it is incorrect and what year that style change was made. This could also prove helpful for anyone working in public relations.

With that being said, I must clarify that this AP Style checker would not be a replacement to newsroom editors, but rather an aide to them. The AP Style checker could only go so far, correcting simple things that are standard across the board, such as Oxford commas, while the rest would be left to the editors for judgment calls and content. We don’t rely solely on spell check when writing now do we? We are always rereading and questioning and rewriting and asking others to edit for us. But, it does help us when we are typing fast and don’t realize we typed “okay”as “oaky.”

As someone who wants to be an editor herself, I could see myself opening up a story, and rather than wasting time changing 6% to 6 percent or asking a writer if a last name is spelled this way or that (another feature of the software being to underline similar last names that are spelled differently) I could focus more on editing the story as a whole. Again, that is not to say that writers and editors would rely solely on the technology to do their jobs for them, but rather aid them and make the process of writing and editing stories quicker and more efficient.

“I think newsroom editors could use it positively as a way to double check for mistakes. So yes, I think it would be a successful tool to utilize,” said Red Cedar Log copy editor Alison Hamilton.

Some of the features this software would have would be to underline absolute errors with red and questionable errors with green. This way, editors can look to the green and make judgment calls, hitting “ignore” if the AP checker detected something that wasn’t actually an error. Also, if a newsroom chooses to purchase the software but a particular reporter or editor finds it not useful or annoying, a “silence” option could be chosen. After all, this software should not be used as a crutch—all editors should know AP style. But, with that being said, mistakes do happen by reporters on deadline and AP style does change each year.

In conclusion,  wouldn’t two vehicles rather than one checking for AP style be more beneficial to a story?  With one of those vehicles being a piece of technology (a one-time fee that does not require a salary) that does it automatically, it would make both the writing and editing process that much faster. Faster news without sacrificing accuracy is something I am sure all newsrooms could appreciate. As long as reporters and editors do not use the AP style checker as a crutch, I could see it being very beneficial in news reporting.


One thought on “AP style check: helpful innovation or crutch?

  1. Did you know that this product exists? We launched AP StyleGuard for Word in 2011, and we’ve followed that with StyleGuard for Outlook and AP Lingofy, which automatically checks for AP style errors when you write on Chrome, Safari, Firefox and Explorer.

    I hope you will give one of these automated tools a try. I agree with you that they need to be used as a tool to augment human decision making, in the same way a calculator or Excel doesn’t eliminate the need for smart interpretation of numbers.

    Colleen Newvine
    product manager, AP Stylebook, and a native Michigander (Central Michigan journalism undergrad, University of Michigan MBA.)


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