Wild and Wacky AP Style

I’m developing a new course for the University of Richmond (Va.) School of Continuing Studies I’m calling AP Style for Business Writers because I’ve met many clients who claim to use it as their in-house writing style — except when they don’t.

I’ve never understood why corporate America glommed on to AP. It’s for news journalists. How many office workers need to know proper capitalization of Osama bin Laden (who, by the way, dropped out of the Stylebook somewhere between 2011 and 2013)?

The Stylebook devotes only 10 pages to all punctuation matters, whereas my old 6th edition of The Gregg Reference Manual (my preferred writing guide, back in the day) devoted 26 pages to commas alone.

The Stylebook is in alphabetical order, which means you must look up every stinking prefix (non-, dis-, un-) to find out which ones need hyphens.

So, preparing this class, I’ve had to read 300+ pages of the current Stylebook and compare them to the 2011 edition (I skipped 2012 — life’s too short) to ferret out any updates because AP willfully REFUSES to flag them.

Here’s one change for you: They dropped the hyphen from moped.

In the process, I have compiled and usefully organized the material that’s pertinent to business writers, and it fits in to 22 pages of handouts. Yup, that fat Stylebook is 99.8% irrelevant.

Here are a few points I uncovered that you might find interesting:

  • Never, under any circumstances, abbreviate department as dept.
  • Never use abbreviations for state names with five or fewer letters EXCEPT Alaska Hawaii (because they’re unattached to the U.S.) or the District of Columbia.
  • Never use italics. For anything. Ever.
  • Ditto for asterisks * and brackets [ ].
  • Lists of items should begin with dashes, never with any of Word’s bullet characters.
  • Every item in a list should end with a period, even if it’s a single word.
  • Parentheses used within a sentence are a sign the sentence has a problem. (Do mine?)
  • It’s not “Merry Christmas,” but “merry Christmas.”

I’m eager to have my first class because it’s bound to attract AP pros who want a refresher — and are possibly hoping for spirited debate.

I think everyone’s soon going to realize that the denizens of corporate America don’t embrace AP style with the fervor they think they do.

OK, I can’t resist. One more:

You’re not supposed to write, The meeting is on Tuesday, but, The meeting is Tuesday.

Well, two more:

And don’t write, We met last Wednesday. Make it, We met Wednesday.

The past-tense verb is supposed to clue the reader in to which Wednesday you mean.

The same goes for next Wednesday. If you write, We will meet Wednesday, you clearly mean next week (if it’s already Thursday).

I uncovered those relatively obscure nuggets for expressing dates under the entry for “on.”

Oh, this is going to be a fun class.

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Capitalization: An Overused Way to Show Respect

Many businesses embrace the AP Stylebook as their writing guide, but the relationship often breaks down over capitalization. AP is firmly minimalist, where corporate America believes you can’t have enough of a good uppercase thing.

Years ago, I worked for a mortgage company whose voluminous customer correspondence capped every word related to the business, such as Mortgage, Deed, Escrow, and many others. The letters looked downright biblical.

Many companies deify their buildings, such as Headquarters, the Home Office, and the Midwest Branch. But where does that leave the warehouse?

And when it comes to people, it’s Caps Gone Wild. AP says no caps on job titles used without a name or following a name (John Smith, manager of operations), including the president of the United States.

But business writers cap them all: the President, the Board of Directors, the Rapid Response Team, the Christmas Party Committee.

When forced to reason why, they usually come up with, “To show respect.”

Well, no, no it doesn’t. Instead, it creates a silly slippery slope that leaves anybody in lowercase feeling slighted or undervalued.

Rampant capitalization can actually sabotage your message. Readers think capped words have more importance because you drew attention to them, so it’s easy to emphasize the wrong things.

For example, the target audience may fail to feel the love from this heartfelt statement you might find in a corporate brochure or website copy:

The customer is the primary focus of every Teammate in our Company.

What comes through to me is a self-centered organization paying lip service to customer service.

(On a side note, yes, companies will devise capitalized euphemisms for their workers because “employee” has somehow become a four-letter word. They think it’s a way to show respect. But that’s another post.)

Here are other examples:

Our Goal for our Products and Services is total customer satisfaction.

The Board of Directors at its Annual Meeting took comments from shareholders.

Companies who rely on caps to pump themselves up become the boorish windbag everybody avoids at the party. In addition, they convey grammatical ineptitude.

So what do you do? AP and common sense generally dictate lowercase on all words except:

  • proper names and places
  • trademarked product names
  • job titles immediately preceding a person’s name (Director of Marketing Mary Jones, President Thomas Jefferson)

It requires no guesswork, it’s easy to remember, and your Shift keys will thank you for the much-needed rest.

How to Make the Leap from “Good Enough” to “Great!”

In any business communication to customers, prospects, or employees, the difference between mediocre and memorable writing is enormous.

Mediocre writing can make readers dismiss your message as junk, but clear, incisive writing has the power to boost your credibility and make your organization a trusted expert and industry leader.

Which image would you prefer?

This is how many companies end up with communications that are just “good enough”:

  • Competent in-house writers are unaware there’s an important distinction between composition and copywriting, so they write marketing materials all about what you do and how great you are — and they fall flat.
  • Brilliant engineers write technical descriptions of great products, but without editing for the target audience, readers scratch their heads and ask, “So what?”
  •  Typos appear in expensive, glossy brochures, newsletters, and website text because nobody took time for proofreading. Simple mechanical mistakes aren’t just embarrassing — they erode credibility on every level.

Every waking moment, people are bombarded with meaningless words and tune them out.

That’s why your words must matter. Your message must be sharp enough to cut through information overload.

I have helped many businesses improve their:

  • Ad copy
  • Blogs
  • Brochures
  • Direct mail
  • Internal communications
  • Manuals & user guides
  • Marketing collateral
  • Newsletters
  • Website content

First, I help you pinpoint your target audience, then I learn about your products and services so we can figure out exactly what you want readers to know about them — in language they can understand — so they’ll remember and choose to do business with you.

If you plan any investment in graphic or Web design, printing, or postage, you owe it to yourself to get the most for your money with writing that’s not just good enough, but Great!

How to Kill Your Corporate Newsletter

One sure way to make a corporate newsletter thrive is to place its focus on employees. They will read it, they will contribute to it, and they will believe that management cares about communicating with them.

I once had a client with such a newsletter. It was a delight to edit because employees across the country submitted stories about their accomplishments and events, complete with photos. It was a great recruiting tool, truthfully portraying the company as a fun, participative workplace.

But then control of the newsletter shifted from marketing to human resources, where the HR head was a political animal who saw everything as an opportunity for personal career advancement. Under this person’s direction, the newsletter withered.

If you’ve got a pesky publication you’d like to kill, you can follow this company’s recipe for disaster:

  • When the submission deadline nears, send a vaguely threatening reminder to potential contributors, with wording like, “This is strictly a friendly reminder that we’re expecting your articles.” (The “or else” may be implied.)
  • Keep stories of employees winning awards and hosting successful events off the front page. Instead, lead every issue with a formal essay on some aspect of the company’s finances—a real wall of words with long paragraphs and no subheads to break things up. Attach a highly placed exec’s byline and headshot to give it credibility, whether he/she actually wrote the piece or not.
  • Forbid the professional editor you’ve hired to improve the front-page story’s readability or make it consistent with the publication’s more conversational style. The executive authors may come off looking long-winded, grammatically inept, and prone to redundancy, but their every word is golden.
  • Decree that any article mentioning the company president must appear no later than page 2, even if the article falls neatly into an established section for such news. The president should never be forced to mingle with the peons, even on paper.
  • As employees disengage and submissions dwindle, fill the void with boilerplate about safety, customer service, ethics, whatever top-down lectures you can cobble from the Internet. Nothing livens up a publication more than recycled generic content. And the longer it is, the deadlier.
  • If the publication is print, move it online, but maintain the print format so readers may have to scroll and jump around a lot to follow stories. Bonus points if the original format was an oversized page — they’ll have to zoom, too.

Before long, your newsletter will shrink like a contestant on Biggest Loser. But the biggest loser will be YOU. You will have stifled employee engagement and killed one of your most effective channels for communicating with employees in a painlessly entertaining way, while earning their goodwill.

Why Proofreading Should Never be Optional

I was recently looking for a new healthcare provider and responded to a well-written, slickly produced brochure I received in the mail. The practice sent me an impressive “Welcome” package that contained two paperback books, which both appeared to be self-published.

One was a thoughtful, substantial work by the physician about his specialty. As self-publishing goes, it was impressive, but there were a few typos. Not a big deal.

The other book was a collection of first-person patient testimonials, accompanied by their full names and, in some cases, photos.

Oh. My. Goodness.

I found typos, usage errors, spelling, and punctuation problems on virtually EVERY PAGE.

The question it raised was, “How can a doctor take such pride in helping his patients feel better, and then leave them swinging like semi-literates in the breeze in PRINT?”

When I met the physician, he was bright and articulate, and I think flummoxed when I told him those testimonials don’t project the image of his practice that he undoubtedly had in mind.

He said, almost apologetically, “Well, they made all those mistakes.”

Obviously.

Since these weren’t professional writers, they probably assumed that this highly educated man would fix their mechanical errors and present their stories in the best light.

I’m guessing he saw it as a matter of honor to publish their words verbatim. But, unless there’s some legal consideration, it’s NEVER a good idea to leave in mistakes that make the writer look careless, inept, or downright ignorant. It makes you look just as bad — maybe even worse if you spent a small fortune having those errors preserved in a book.

ALWAYS proofread and clean up the wording. Every mistake you let stand detracts from your own credibility.