Drop the "drill-and-kill" approach

Jill Van Wyke | Drake University

In the classroom, we typically tackle The Associated Press Stylebook alphabetically. But if the goal is retention and application of the rules, the alphabetical approach is ineffective. Be honest: Who hasn’t tuned out by the time you got to the “Amalgamated Transit Union” entry?

Instead, my students learn AP style by studying entries grouped into 13 categories of related entries:

Business
Composition Titles
Crime and Courts
Education
Geography
Government and Politics
History
Medicine and Science
Military
Miscellaneous
Religion
Race/Ethnicity/Gender/Disabilities
Technology

For example, the Crime and Courts category consists of about 50 related entries, including:

accused
allege
burglary, larceny, robbery, theft
civil cases, criminal cases
felony, misdemeanor
grand jury
homicide, murder, manslaughter
innocent, not guilty
pardon, parole, probation

My “master list,” which can be downloaded from the link to the left, has more than 750 entries in 13 categories.

I use this categorical approach to AP style in a sophomore-level editing class. Early on, we discuss the reasons for adhering to style (consistency, precision, accuracy, among others). We also look at examples of newspaper and magazine stylebooks that can supersede AP’s.

Next, we review “the big three” categories of AP style they learned (or should have learned) as freshmen: abbreviations and acronyms; capitalization; and numbers. The Wire-Service Style Summary appendix of “Working With Words” (Brooks, Pinson, Gaddy Wilson, 2006) is useful for this review.

I distribute my master list to students. Then, working in pairs, the students are responsible for teaching a category to their classmates. I have had great success using the “Style Stars” GIFT (2007) submitted by Dr. Rick Kenney of Central Florida. (Also downloadable from the link at left.) Kenney’s GIFT is an effective method for students to collaboratively learn and demonstrate AP style. Where Kenney assigns a section of the stylebook to pairs of students, I have the pairs choose a category that interests them.

Getting away from alphabetical “drill-and-kill” moves students toward a sophisticated appreciation of the profound impact language can have. Students grasp that the stylebook, rather than a burdensome rule book, is an essential tool in achieving clarity, precision and consistency.

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