5 AP Stylebook shortcuts to keep you on your game

Although many PR pros study the guide’s latest edition, feeling rusty about your familiarity is nothing to be shy about. Here are a few tips to help you find the entry you need with ease.

It’s likely that as a PR pro, you have an AP Stylebook sitting somewhere on your bookshelf.

If your organization uses AP style at its standard, you’re even more likely to have one on your desk.

Still, you might not be using it as often or as well as you should. As a refresher, here are five shortcuts to remember the next time you’re wondering whether it’s “word-of-mouth marketing,” or “word of mouth marketing”:

1. You can invest digitally.

PR pros and journalists who frequently use this resource should get an AP Stylebook account. The option to type your questions (Google-style) rather than flipping through pages can save you time, and the online results are usually more complete.

Besides having Stylebook entries as the physical book does, the Web version also has records of Q&As with editors, which give extra clarity to certain rules. You can find helpful information in these responses that aren’t listed as standard entries in the book. As with the book, the more you use the online tool, the easier things become.

If you’re active on Twitter, keep an eye out for the AP Stylebook account’s monthly #APStyleChat. This chat typically focuses on a specific area of interest and allows users to directly ask their questions to an AP editor. In January, the topic was political terms.

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2. There’s probably a section for that.

If you’re like most PR pros, you do a lot of writing, but you aren’t also a linguistics or English professor.

Uncertainty surrounds using commas, dashes, hyphens and semicolons. Even though you’ve been writing press releases for years, that experience doesn’t make you immune to having punctuation questions.

There are nine pages of the 2015 AP Stylebook dedicated to these concerns. Challenge yourself to look at it more often. Once you’ve looked up a specific punctuation rule a few times, try to recall it by memory. Rely on this section to help you better trust your gut when it comes to knowing when to use an ellipsis or exclamation point.

The challenge can be applied to other sections of the Stylebook, too. Fashion, religion and social media all warrant their own sections in the back of the book. If you’re already an active user of these sections, try to keep up with how quickly words are added.

Each year, the terms that fall within these categories increase, and so do the number of pages they occupy in the Stylebook. It’s wise to stay current.

3. There won’t be an entry for every term.

Over time, you’ll develop an understanding of AP’s rationale for rules and will learn how to apply that thinking to questions you have. In the end, though, there’s not a hard and fast rule for every single term.

Take hyphens, for example. AP Stylebook says:

Hyphen are joiners. Use them to avoid ambiguity or to form a single idea from two or more words.

It also states that use of the hyphen is far from standardized. In most cases the use is optional—a matter of taste, judgment and “style sense.” Although it’s a common tip to use hyphens sparingly, the frequency of their use will vary from writer to writer.

You’ll be hard pressed to find an entry for “hard-pressed,” but the AP Stylebook does have an entry for “high definition (n.),” and “high-definition (adj.).”

4. Explore to find hidden gems.

The next time you’re on the hook for writing an organization’s 5K press release or a recipe for a cooking website’s blog, look no further than the AP Stylebook’s “numerals” pages.

Although this isn’t its own section, there are nearly 20 terms that fall under this classification. Dimensions, betting odds, ages and dates can all be found here. Knowing this can save you time, if you’re looking for the proper term for 9-iron—or how to best write that a bill was defeated by a vote of 7-5.

As the winter weather in many parts of the country makes headlines, remember that there’s a Stylebook grouping of “weather terms.” The same goes for “weapons,” in case you find yourself covering another press conference related to gun violence.

5. Thumbing through isn’t exclusively a newbie tactic.

Don’t assume you’re an AP style pro just because you’ve an experienced writer.

Although labor intensive to your thumbs, it’s worthwhile to flip through the book from time to time—even if you have long worked at a newspaper or organization that adheres to AP style.

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If the thought of paging through the entire Stylebook turns you green, look at certain sections that are of interest or pertinent to your job. If you send lots of press releases related to sports, study the sports section. If you’re in the restaurant industry, check out the food entries. If you work with lots of corporations, see the business rules.

If you find yourself always using the punctuation guide, use Post-It Notes to bookmark that section. Your thumbs will thank you.

Ragan.com readers, what are your favorite style points–or the vexing entries that have you double- and triple-checking them? Please let us know in the comments section.

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