A few years ago, when I was a lowly editorial associate, an inexperienced volunteer writer submitted a story to the Sun about the Joint Forces Training Base in Los Alamitos. Her article quoted a man I’d never heard of before: B. G. Combs. He was the commander of the JFTB. He has since retired.
At the time, I didn’t know if B.G. stood for his Bernard Gordon, “Big Guy,” or brigadier general. I was pretty sure that if he was a general he would not appreciate some reporter or editor identifying him as “big guy.”
It was 20 minutes of deadline, if memory serves me right. I didn’t see the article until late in the process—when I was supposed to place the story in a computer program that would be used to create the newspaper that lands on your doorstep every Thursday. Twenty minutes of deadline is not the best time to ask yourself questions about copy.
I asked the volunteer reporter, who didn’t recall the answer off the top of her head. Steam must have been oozing out of my ears, because she told me to relax.
About 10 minutes passed while I waited for the answer. It turned out B.G. stood for brigadier general. The volunteer reporter had to make another phone call to find out that his full name was James P. Combs.
What’s the point? Publications (and) Web sites have style rules that go beyond following standard grammar, punctuation and spelling. Two rules that the rookie reporter broke were: use a source’s full name on first reference and abbreviate brigadier general as “brig. gen.”
When I tried to explain this to the reporter, she insisted I was wrong. Base personnel told her the correct way to refer to Combs in print was B.G. Combs. I’m sure that’s the correct U.S. Military style and I’m sure it serves the military’s mission well. However, her decision to follow U.S. Military style didn’t allow me to know the letters “B.G.” stood for. Over time, I urged her (and other volunteers who have followed in her footsteps) to use the full rank in front of the source’s name on first reference. This wasn’t consistent with news media style, but it spares volunteers the bother of memorizing our abbreviation system and spares me the bother of guessing what the military’s abbreviation system means.
Had the rookie followed the first rule—use a source’s full name on first reference—I could have reasonably guessed what the initials stood for and saved us both a fair amount of time. (Yes, I know, journalists aren’t supposed to guess—we’re supposed to know or find out. Guess what? Twenty minutes of deadline, people take educated guesses—or they delete whole paragraphs from articles. Of course, I could have simply left the article out of the paper … it wasn’t time-sensitive, so we could have run it the following week.)
The purpose of the style rules news organizations go by is to get the information the reader needs to the reader in a uniform manner throughout the publication. Only an idiot cares if we report the time of day as noon, 12 PM or 12 p.m. Only sloppy editors intentionally use all three styles in the same publication.
Most news organizations, including the Sun Newspapers, follow The Associated Press Stylebook. My 30th (2004) edition of the Stylebook is 378 pages long. Smart journalists read it frequently. Most news organizations will test a job applicant to see if he or she knows it well. The applicant who fails the test remains unemployed. (And you thought your middle school English teacher was tough.)
Hence, journalists tend to be mighty stubborn about following AP Style. We take such things seriously because we have to take them seriously.
Do contributors to the Sun need to know AP Style? For the most part, I’d say no. However, the better you know and follow AP Style, the less work editors have to do on your submissions and the more favorably disposed the editors will be to your copy.
That can make the difference between a decision to fill empty space with copy from the “illiterate, makes me work twice as hard on deadline Tip Toe Club” or the “thoughtful, polite folks at the Tic Tac Toe Club.” That’s as true of the big dailies as it is of the small weeklies.
(Or you can buy an advertisement. Then it has to go in the newspaper. However, if you want it in the paper without paying for it, then please be nice to your editors.)
Here are a couple of style suggestions for writers submitting copy to the Sun:
Event, day of week, month, date, time of day (a.m. or p.m.), followed by the address. (You’d be shocked at how often people will write about how important or interesting an event will be, yet leave out the address. If people can find your event, they won’t show up.)
Try to keep your first sentence to less than 50 words. Most readers will start to skip over sentences that are longer than that. If you can’t follow the previous rule without breaking the second, I suggest you put the address of the event in the next sentence. The purpose of the style rules is to get the information the reader needs to the reader in a clear and uniform manner throughout the publication. Everything else is subordinate to that purpose.
Identify everyone in a story by full name on first reference, unless they have legally changed their name to just a first name or that person is so famous that they can be identified by the first name alone. Capitalize titles before a name, but not after a name.
Believe it or not, this will shave a couple of hours off my work week and Sun Editor Dennis Kaiser’s work week. And please don’t take offense when we alter your copy. We usually have a reason and that reason usually has to do with reaching our audience. Because if we don’t reach our audience, you won’t reach your audience. Whether you call your audience “the reader,” “the community” or “potential customers,” the audience counts more than the writer (or the editor). That’s why we have stylebooks in this business.
OK, that’s enough for this day’s writing blog. I’ll see you next week. I’ll try to make the next writing blog shorter, too.
Always a pleasure,