A clear message never goes out of style. And unlike fashion, there’s a tried-and-true handbook for stylish writing that’s always in season.

I’m talking about Associated Press style, or AP style rules. AP style guidelines are a set of common style rules used by most newspapers and magazines to maintain quality grammar and syntax standards. The AP style guide is one of many different style guides in the world, but it’s among the most common style rules for journalists and news writers.

Key Takeaways

  • AP style gives specific instructions for formal titles, quotation marks, numbered addresses, and more.
  • The AP stylebook isn’t a hard-and-fast rulebook. Many organizations follow AP style, but with some variations.
  • Developing a style guide for your organization can help you develop quality control for written content.

If you want to write for media outlets one day, learning the basics of AP style sooner rather than later is a good idea. Here’s what to know.

What Is the Associated Press?

The Associated Press is an independent, not-for-profit global news organization founded in 1846. The AP dedicates itself to factual, neutral reporting of the highest quality.

AP stories are often syndicated to many other news outlets. In fact, AP is the largest news gathering organization in the U.S. that operates as a wire service.

AP News is free to read.


What Is the Associated Press Stylebook?

The AP stylebook is a writing guide.

First published in 1951 to help its own writers become better writers, AP’s first edition for public consumption came in 1953. The book is essential for media writing and is one of the standard reference materials in an editor’s library. New or revised entries are introduced each year as AP style continues to evolve to meet the readability needs of the modern consumer.

By having writers adhere to a style book, newspapers saved money and other media outlets were able to syndicate AP’s stories more quickly.

Why Care About News Writing and AP Style?

In a world where media literacy is declining, it’s important that we make our content easy to read. This helps our readers get the information they need, and it improves accessibility.

Writing style is not just about voice and tone. It’s also about readability. If readers are confused, or the information is too complex, they’ll click out. This is one of the core principles of news writing.

Let’s talk through the general Associated Press style and top takeaways from the Associated Press stylebook.

AP Stylebook Top Tips

Here are some of the most common rules in AP style.

Capitalization

  • Capitalize proper nouns. “The Republican National Convention began on Tuesday.”
  • Capitalize the key words in a title. “How to Start an Herb Garden in 5 Steps.”
  • Capitalize whichever word begins the sentence.
  • Capitalize a formal title when it comes before the name: Principal John Doe. Also applies to medical and political titles.
  • But keep it lowercase if after the name: John Doe, principal of Locust High School.
  • AP style doesn’t use the honorarium (Mr., Mrs., Mx.).
  • As a general rule, AP does use Dr., but for medical doctors only, not scholars or PhDs.

Pro Tip:Remember that you can deviate from AP style in your own writing, as long as there is a reason and you stay consistent. When writing for other publications, though, you’ll need to adhere to their style guide.

Titles

  • Longer titles are better after the name: John Doe, treasurer of the Locust High School PTA.
  • AP will sometimes truncate a title to “spokesperson” for brevity. Reads better than “assistant public relations manager.”
  • Books and composition titles are in quote marks, not italics or underlines.

Numbers

  • Numbers less than 10 are written as words, numbers 10 and up as numerals (one, two, 11, 12).
  • Exception: You never start a sentence with a numeral, so that’s an exception. “Five years ago…”
  • Ordinals are numbers with suffixes. Same rules apply: First-ninth, then 10th, 11th, and so on.
  • Exception: Ages are always numbers. “Sarah turns 7 next week.”
  • Exception: Sports scores are always numerals, with the winning score always comes first: The Dodgers beat the Nationals 5-3.

Abbreviations

  • Correctly formatted addresses abbreviate the street type when the address number is used. Spell it out when just the street name. “953 Third St., Third Street”.
  • No periods in directional abbreviations (NW, SE,SW, SE). But spell them out when part of a name: “East Third Street”
  • Abbreviate post office box to P.O. Box, with periods.
  • Cut the periods in a headline to save yourself a few characters. “The US Team Wins Gold” in the headline, but “The U.S. team wins gold” in the story.
  • A large city does not need a state reference. “Temecula, Ca., Los Angeles.”
  • State abbreviations in AP style are different from the postal abbreviations. Example: “Minn.” for Minnesota, “W. Va.” for West Virginia.
  • Colloquially, still spell out the state, though. “I’m from Minnesota.”
  • States with six or fewer letters don’t have an AP abbreviation. Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Ohio, Utah, Texas.

Currency

  • Shorter is usually better, but still be accurate. A medium latté costs $5., not $5.00 or 5 dollars.
  • Use words rather than numerals for large numbers, it’s okay to round: “5 million.”

Other Notes

  • No Oxford commas or serial commas. “I bought sausage, mushrooms and peppers for dinner tonight.”
  • Just use “said” when attributing a quote. Every time. It’s fine, really.
  • Use said after the quote for more clarity. The order is subject-verb, rather than verb-subject.
  • In longer quotes, you can attribute between sentences for more clarity. “I love Nick’s blog posts,” Jane Doe said. “I often learn something new.”

Time and Date

  • Time: 4 a.m., 6:15 p.m. No capital letters on the time abbreviation, but do use periods.
  • One word is sometimes better. Noon, midnight, or “dawn” if a less precise time is acceptable.
  • Two ways to do ranges: “From 7-9 p.m.” or “From 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.”.
  • Days are not abbreviated. Months aren’t either, except when part of a date. “In November”, but also “Nov. 1.”
  • Always spell out the day of the week. “The Democratic National Convention began on Friday.”
  • Dates use ordinals, not numerals. “Nov. 1” instead of “Nov. 1st.”
  • Only add the year when necessary for context.
  • Month abbreviations are: Jan. Feb. March, April, May, June, July, Aug. Sept. Oct. Nov. Dec.

Other Commonly Used Stylebooks

The Associated Press stylebook is one of a number of sets of style guidelines. Depending on what type of writing you’re doing, you might reference a different style guide instead. Here are examples of other common style guidelines.

The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) provides guidelines for publishing, particularly American English usage in non-fiction books and journals. It covers issues of grammar, punctuation, citation, and formatting.

The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA style) is commonly used for scientific writing in the social sciences. It provides standards for writing clearly, citing references, formatting papers, and handling issues like bias-free language.

The Modern Language Association Handbook (MLA style) is a guide for writing and documenting research papers, particularly in the humanities. It has detailed rules for in-text citations and reference lists for various source types.

The Elements of Style by Strunk and White is a classic guide to American English usage and composition. It focuses on basic principles like conciseness, clarity, and accuracy at the sentence level.

A Dictionary of Modern English Usage by H.W. Fowler provides guidance on British English grammar, word usage, punctuation and style. It takes a descriptive rather than prescriptive approach.

The Cambridge Guide to Australian English Usage by Pam Peters analyzes distinct vocabulary and grammar conventions of Australian English. It serves as a reference tool for questions of spelling, punctuation, and usage particular to Australia.

AP Style and SEO

AP style naturally aligns with SEO best practices, making it easier for writers to optimize their content for search engines.

By incorporating keywords, utilizing headings, and maintaining readability, writers can create content that appeals both to readers and search engines, ultimately increasing their online visibility.

Polish Up Your Writing Today

A style guide can help you establish standards and consistency for your own publication. Leverage an existing stylebook or create one for yourself to punch up your own style guidelines. ◆

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