There is a style, you know!….. Working at a newspaper is a wonderful profession. We won’t get rich, but the people we meet are sometimes worth more than any amount of money.
By Marvin Baker
As we get older, the job appears to become easier, primarily because we do things by repetition, and even a Holstein cow will remember her stall if she is sent in to the same one enough times. College, however, was a lot more difficult for any of us who pursued journalism as a career. We had to learn so much in four years. I can’t imagine how doctors do it.
One of the books that we were told to get to know, and perhaps memorize, is the AP Stylebook. If we had issues remembering all 466 pages, we were highly encouraged to purchase one at the university bookstore. Most of us did, and as our college curriculum became more intense, the AP Stylebook became more important. Another book just as important, but not getting much attention, is the dictionary.
Forty years ago there was no Wikipedia or even Internet, so a dictionary was crucial to spell those words we often stumble on such as “diesel” or “cemetery.” By the way, does Internet have a capital I or is it internet? It also helps us with most slang words. Yes, ain’t is in the dictionary even though it isn’t proper English.
The AP Stylebook provides guidance on spelling unusual names such as Tegucigalpa or Wonglepong. We also learn quickly that short, concise sentences and paragraphs are much easier for the reader.
When we get out of college, we don’t need those books day to day because the theory is journalism grads should have a good grasp of the English language in its entirety as we go about our careers. Some of us quickly become editors, and now we have to not only write copy, we have to proofread other copy and correct it.
In small community newspapers, a lot of material is submitted by the public. Many papers wouldn’t be able to exist without assistance from volunteers. A good example would be a parent taking photos of their kids at away games and providing them to the newspaper. Some people write guest columns and others are “correspondents.”
These are the people who write the society news such as Sally visited Jane, and while they had coffee and cake, they talked about old truck engines. OK! That may be an exaggeration. Regardless, a lot of people contribute.
We also get a lot of outside material such as letters to the editor and press releases. It’s obvious that many of the people who provide those press releases don’t know or understand journalism or English. And, as any editor will tell you, if it doesn’t at least have some kind of basic English to it, the next stop is the recycle center. We get all kinds of stuff that either has to be changed or completely rewritten.
Take for example a 500-word letter to the editor that doesn’t have any paragraphs and is written in all capital letter. How do you decipher that? You might as well be reading Swahili.
There are other items that make you think you’re reading something straight out of the bayou such as the first annual event or a building that’s kind of unique. Annual means every year, and it’s either unique or it isn’t. Sometimes we’ll see something like $4 M dollars. If you can read between the lines, it should be $4 million.
The other issue is incomplete sentences. People are notorious for that. We might see “All the grain in 2017.” What about all the grain? Where it really gets dicey is with funeral homes. When a loved one passes, typically the family provides information to the funeral home and someone at the home writes the obituary.
The last thing anybody wants to do is get something wrong in an obituary. Most of us in journalism believe that if we make a mistake in an ad, we can refund money. If we make a mistake in an obit., we can’t bring back the deceased. We generally believe obituaries are well-written, but funeral directors are human, too, and can make mistakes. Generally when that happens, we call to clarify the error and correct it.
Sometimes we’re told, it has to be exactly as it is written in the obituary. A common mistake we see a lot is with war time service, such as he served in World War II from 1946 to 1950. There are occasions where some things are so well-written, they get printed verbatim.
It’s good to have knowledge of what you’re writing about, and it doesn’t hurt to take a second look.