AP Style and proofreading techniques for newbies

Look. I know discussing AP Style isn’t everybody’s idea of a good time. But consider this: Without sound proofreading techniques, allot’ve ritten comunicashun wood lewk like dis. Which doesn’t exactly get your message across or reflect well on your brand.

THAT’S WHERE I COME IN.

Fun fact: The AP in AP Style stands for April Pearson (don’t look it up). That’s me! Not only am I a senior copywriter at Lessing-Flynn, I’m also a proofreader extraordinaire. And I’ve got strong opinions when it comes to semicolons, capitalization and courtesy titles.

But first! Let’s answer some pressing proofing questions.

1. Why is proofreading important?

There’s an old advertising adage: If you can’t spot the error, you are the error. That’s not true; I made it up just now. But it still illustrates my point. What this means is that no matter how great you are at writing, you’re going to make mistakes. That’s why it’s important to proofread your work and — more importantly — have another person proofread it, too. They can look things over with fresh eyes and catch mistakes you, as the writer, automatically gloss over. There are plenty of examples of embarrasing errors that a simple read through could have prevented.

2. Why AP Style?

There are several editorial styles to choose from: MLA, APA, Chicago, AP…. I shouldn’t be telling you this, but the AP in AP Style actually stands for Associated Press, not April Pearson. I’m sorry I lied. I have a problem. The AP Stylebook was created to standardize punctuation, capitalization, abbreviation and more in mass communication. A brief history by Northern Michigan University explains it well:

“The Associated Press was founded in 1848 by six New York newspapers who desired to share resources for international news. The newspapers saved money by sharing the news that arrived by telegraph wire and dividing the expenses evenly; this prevented competition for information. The AP is currently the largest news-gathering organization in the world and uses its style to keep the news easy to read, concise and free of bias. First published in 1977, The Associated Press Stylebook lists the rules regarding grammar, spelling, punctuation and usage. The Stylebook is the standard guide for most U.S. newspapers, magazines and other media.”

Most agencies use AP Style, but no matter which style your agency / client / audience prefers, the most important thing is to be consistent. We decided to go with AP style a long time ago, and we’re sticking to it.

3. How can I, a newbie, apply AP Style to my clients’ work?

The first thing you’ll want to do is acquaint yourself with AP Style at a high level. Don’t assume the rules you learned in school carry over here — they don’t. AP Style has a lot of subjective rules, and the rules are always changing with the current communication climate.

Then I suggest investing in an online subscription to The AP Stylebook for the most up-to-date information. You can search topics, add notes, ask specific questions, create your own custom style book and more! I check out this baby several times a day and it saves me tons of time and frustration. However, the good old-fashioned paperback version is good, too! Just make sure you get the updated edition that comes out every year, usually in May. If you want to get really nerdy about it, you can also follow AP Style on social media and sign up for the e-newsletter.

Next, start proofreading your clients’ work with AP Style in mind. Look up everything in The AP Stylebook, and I mean everything. The more you research, the better and faster you’ll get at catching errors. You don’t have to know every rule by heart, but soon you’ll at least know when there’s a rule and you’ll know exactly where to find it. Keep notes of common mistakes to share with colleagues so you don’t duplicate efforts. And let your clients know why you’re editing certain phrases certain ways. If you can explain it to someone else, your well on your way to becoming an expert!

4. What’s your proofreading technique, oh proofreader extraordinaire?

Proofreading can be really overwhelming, but it just takes practice! And the more you do it, the better you get and the more rewarding it becomes.

A typical project for me — let’s say it’s an article — goes like this:

  • I skim the entire thing to get an idea of the content.
  • Then I read through the headline, subhead and section headers to make sure they’re grammatically correct, similarly structured and relevant to the main idea.
  • Next, I search the article for common “trouble spots” or areas that need special attention. Are there lots of measurements or numbers? What about quotes or job titles? Trademarked products or services? I get into a groove and fix all those up.
  • Then I go through each sentence with a a fine-tooth comb, offering suggestions for grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc.
  • Finally, I read through the entire thing from top to bottom for flow and any rogue errors.

Proofreading anything really well takes time, concentration and an almost unhealthy desire for perfection. But when you have all those things, it’s sooo much fun!

5. Anything else?

Oh yeah, about those strong opinions I promised you: Semi-colons are neat, headlines should be sentence case and courtesy titles are for suckers.

FUN ACTIVITY: There are five errors in questions 1 – 5. Can you spot them? Email info@lessingflynn.com with the correct answers for your chance to win sweet LF merch!

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