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,
Charles

We’ve made a few changes to the Sun Web site. Instead of updating the site each week, we’re posting at least one story a day. Tuesday is generally going to be for sports stories, Wednesday for business, Thursday for letters to the editor.

Speaking of letters to the editor, we’re going to start posting on line any letters we didn’t have room for in the print edition of the Sun. So feel free to tell us what you think about current events, city government, Leisure World, the school district, Seal Beach business, Rossmoor government—and, of course, the Sun.

We couldn’t do this job without you, our readers.

There will also be a local news story each day on the home page. I’ll continue to do the Friday general blog as well as the Sunday blog on writing. (Our Thanksgiving production schedule forced me to miss last Sunday, for which I apologize.)

The Sun Newspaper office closed at 3 p.m. today, Friday, Nov. 25. We’ll be open for regular business on Monday.

As always, please remember to submit your story ideas and photos to dennis@sunnews.org.

Have a happy Thanksgiving, Seal Beach—and Sunset Beach, Rossmoor, Belmont Shore and Los Alamitos. I’ve updated the news and opinion pages of the Sun Web site. Enjoy.

My next Friday blog will appear after Thanksgiving is over, so I’d best be doing my thanking now.

I’m thankful to be working and living in Seal Beach—still one of the best places to live, despite what happened last month.

I’m thankful to be a full time, paid journalist. Not many writers can say that.

I’m thankful to be working under Dennis Kaiser, a friend since 1986 and a man with 30 years’ experience in community journalism in Seal Beach and Dana Point. It’s rare to work with a friend and keep the friendship. (How’d we do that?) It’s more rare to get one-on-one mentoring in your chosen profession. Dennis recruited me to write for this paper, so I pretty much owe him my journalism career. Thanks, pal.

On a personal note, I’m thankful my 93-year-old stepmother is alive and capable of intelligent conversation—even if her favorite topic is still, “Why aren’t you married?”

Finally, I’m thankful to the readers of the Sun Newspaper and Sun Web site. Without you, I might be doing something else in another town.

Thanks, everyone. I’ll see you next week.

Until then, why don’t you post a reply and tell us what you’re grateful for?

Always a pleasure,

Charles

Inexperienced and poorly trained writers have developed an aversion to the word “said”—as in: “Good morning,” he said.

According to this school of of thought, you can state, claim, note, add, yell, shout, exclaim, bleat, bellow, belch and even yodel—but you must never say anything.

Nonsense, I say. You are allowed to use the word said twice in a lifetime of writing. In fact, you can write that someone said something many times in an article.

The origins of the illiterate myth that you must avoid the word said at all costs—this red flag that tells the reader that a writer is both illiterate and pretentious—appears to have its origins in one of the basic rules of good writing: Don’t be redundant.

It is a good to avoid being redundant. However, that fine rule can be taken to an insane extreme. If you can’t use any word or phrase more than once, you can’t write more than two or three sentences before you run into trouble. Imagine the work it would take if you couldn’t use the words “he,” “she” or “the” more than once. You couldn’t use a source’s first or last name more than once or use a source’s gender or job title more than once.

Unfortunately, bad writers will go to insane lengths to avoid “said.” Here are some tips from a guy who has worked as a professional writer for more than six years.

Wrong: “I respectfully disagree,” he noted.

Don’t write that someone “noted” words unless they sang those words or wrote a note. If I write a profile of a man who answers questions by singing, I’m going to write that he sang the words—and make it clear I’m being literal when I write that fact. If someone responds to a verbal conversation by writing a note, I’m going to share that detail with readers—because it is a mighty strange thing for a man or woman to do during a conversation.

Right: “I like this restaurant,” she said.

Wrong: “I like this restaurant, too,” he added.

Reporters are supposed to interview as many sources as they can before they write a story. However, when you quote source B as adding information to something source A said, you create the impression that you sat at a table with those two people and the three of you had a conversation. “Added” is a lie told by a writer who claims to be purveying the truth because the writer wants to avoid using the word said. That makes the writer both illiterate and dishonest.

I’ll respect the use of the word “added” after a quote the day I accept the word “subtracted” after a quote. Hey, let’s try it and see if it works.

“I like you,” he subtracted.

Nope, “subtracted” doesn’t make sense at the end of a quote—and neither does “added.”

Right: “I am running for mayor,” she said.

Wrong: “I am running for mayor,” she stated.

The word stated implies that there might be a fact that contradicts that statement. It is a subtle way of calling someone a liar. As a rule, this word is used by amateurs who have no intention of accusing someone of being dishonest. Use “said” instead—you’re far less likely to end up on the wrong end of a libel suit. “Stated” is also jargon—it reads and sounds like a word a lawyer would use. Writers are people, they should write and speak as people.

Worse than wrong: “I’m a good person,” she claimed.

I wouldn’t use this word unless someone made an outlandish statement without any evidence to back it up. Even then, I probably wouldn’t use it. The word “claimed” bluntly implies someone is a liar. Sometimes journalists use it when someone makes an outlandish claim, but I won’t. If I have evidence someone is lying, I’m going to talk to my editor and publisher about when and how to use that evidence. I’m not going to use code words and hope the general public speaks mainstream media code.

The word said simply relates a fact: a human being opened his or her mouth and spoke words.

Worse than illiterate: “I’m excited!” he exclaimed.

Yes, I’ve actually seen “writers” combine an exclamation point with the word “exclaimed.” First, that really is redundant. Second, it is an insult to the reader’s intelligence. (The sentence implies the reader is too stupid to recognize a punctuation mark.)

The correct version of the sentence ought to be: “I am excited,” he said.

Or: “I am excited,” he said with a yawn.

I’ll sometimes report that a source “wrote” something rather than “said” something  if I can identify the author of the document. Otherwise, I use the word said. PDF files and printed pages cannot speak, but they can say important things—just ask anyone who has read the Bible or the Torah. Yet documents cannot write. So when quoting a document with a known author, I tell readers that so-and-so wrote the quoted words.

Said. It is a perfectly good word. Please use it as often as you need it when writing. You won’t have to tie yourself in knots trying to find an alternative world. Your reader will know what you are writing about. Your poor abused editor will be grateful for saving him the bother of replacing every “added,” “noted” and “stated” with “said.”

Incidentally, the more work you make an editor do, the less likely you are to get your submission published.

Please say said.

And having said that—I’ll see you next week.

I always think about my father on Veterans Day. He earned his Purple Heart during the Battle of the Bulge. (For those of you too young to recognize the name, it was the last battle with Germany in World War II.)

I think of the round scar on his right shoulder—caused by a bullet. I think of the scar on his upper arm, which was strangely shaped in comparison with his other arm—caused by surgery to treat an infected wound.

I think of the Purple Heart medal in the box that always reminded me—and still reminds me—of a coffin. (I’m luckier than many other sons of World War II combatants—too many of their fathers returned in actual coffins.)

I think of his proudest military possession—the patch that proclaimed him a private. To him, it was the privates that won the war. The generals just got the credit. (Who am I kidding? He thought he won the war with a small, and much appreciated, assist from a few million other guys—an opinion shared by each and everyone of those million other guys.)

I think of the times I made the mistake of touching him while he was asleep. He struck me in the eye-blink before he came awake. He always woke with a start—some part of him was still prepared to wake up and fight for his life, even in the late 1960s. In a sense, he brought a little bit of World War II home with him in his heart and mind.

When he got his draft notice, he was eager to go. He thought World War II would be the only war in his life time and he didn’t want to miss out. When he returned, he promised himself no son of his would fight in one. By sheer dumb luck, he got his wish.

We’re all able to enjoy a lot of freedoms we would have lost because of guys like him—both volunteers and draftees up until the post-Vietnam era; all volunteers now. And let’s not forget the women who served and serve. They may not be officially assigned to combat duties, but our enemies don’t really care. If they wear the U.S. uniform, they are potential targets—and those who choose to serve know it.

I always think about my father on Veterans Day. I hope the sons and daughters of vets still in service get to see their moms and dads when they, at long last, return to the world. I hope we never lose what vets we lost on foreign soil—and will lose in future years—paid so dearly to protect.

My thanks to all vets, past present and—sigh—future, because there will always be wars. (I wish that were not true, but it is.) My thanks to the warriors who lived and live—and those who never made it home. Your sons and daughters remember you and what you did—and parents, siblings, cousins and strangers remember, too.

Thanks from all of us.

I spend two or three hours a week converting unnecessary capital letters into small letters. Seriously. It isn’t that any one author misuses capital letters—it’s that so many people do it so much of the time that it takes a huge chuck out of a work day to alter so many e-mails.

Since this is the first in what I hope will be a series of blogs on writing, I decided to start with unnecessary capitalization.

A lot of people think capitalizing words gets people’s attention.

Yes and no. Saying hello in a normal tone of voice will get someone’s attention. Screaming hello in someone’s face will also get you their attention. However, screaming hello will also annoy people. It is worth noting that on the Internet, capitalizing all the letters in a word is the equivalent of shouting or yelling. Sometimes you have to shout to be heard, but if you’re shouting all the time then it may be time to rethink your communication technique.

Some people think you have to capitalize all the letters in all the words in the title of a book, movie or event. Capitalize the first letters—except for the words “the”, “a,” and “of.” Leave the rest alone.

The most pervasive myth about capital letters—the one that costs me hours of time that could be better spent reporting on life in Seal Beach—is that Using Capital Letters Makes Someone Or Something Important.

I see this a lot in press releases written by amateurs. I’ve seen documents where every single word was capitalized in an effort to create the illusion of importance and force a feeling of excitement on readers. Don’t kid yourself. If your subject is important to the reader, using small letters won’t cause the subject to cease being interesting. If the subject is algebra, capitalizing that first letter won’t generate enthusiasm.

One of the most important poets of the 20th century was e. e. cummings, who often used deliberate misspellings in his poems. Using small letters in his name did not make him important. The conventions of the English language say my name should be capitalized. I am a very minor person in the city of Seal Beach.

Which brings me to a good rule of thumb about capitalization. If it is the name of a person, geographic location or government agency—by all means, capitalize the first letters. If not, don’t bother.

Maybe this will kill some of those capital letters, so I can devote a little more time to writing about Seal Beach, Rossmoor, Los Alamitos and the Sun Region generally.

See you next week.

Sigh. I was walking down Main Street recently and saw, yet again, an empty storefront on Main Steet. I cal it the ghost Town Syndrome I hate it.

I’ve seen the Ghost Town Syndrome before. I used to live in Long Beach. (I’ll never live there again if I have anything to say about it.) I lived within walking distance of a shopping center. One day, a little nick-nack store closed forever. It remained empty. Then, one by one, the smaller shops went broke. No one likes to shop at out of the way stores in the first place.

Even less appealing are stores next to empty units. The ghost town effect is rather like a cancer. The shopping center I speak of nearly died—only a radical remodel saved it.

I wish I knew how to fight this particular cancer that is attacking Main Street Seal Beach, but I don’t. So I worry. It’s what I do best, actually—I worry and anticipate the worst. It doesn’t make me feel better and it doesn’t solve anything, but I worry. I know how to worry.

I was once criticized at work for thinking in terms of problems instead of solutions. You can’t solve problems if you pretend they don’t exist. So, we have a problem. Any suggestions for improving Main Street business? Because I don’t want Seal Beach Main Street to become a ghost town—or Seal Beach a memory.

E-mail the Sun at dennis@sunnews.org or post your thoughts here at my blog.