Compiling a local stylebook

May 12, 2013 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: writing.

Every publication needs its own stylebook — a set of rules for referring to local items and guidelines for solving problems and questions that the AP Stylebook does not address. (Courses in writing, even if they are not producing a publication or web site, should have a set of rules which students should learn and observe.)

Compiling such a stylebook has a number advantages for a publication’s staff or a class in writing:

It can serve as an easy reference for writing questions that come up in class.

It is a good demonstration of the importance of consistency in writing.

It can get students to think and make decisions about style — decisions that they and others will have to abide by.

Any stylebook is a work in progress. You will not think about all of the questions and problems that need to be solved initially. Rather, those questions will arise naturally as students are doing their work. One method of building a stylebook is to put a student — one who demonstrates a natural interest in the language — in charge of keeping the stylebook and making it available to others. That student might be the final arbiter of style questions, but style rules should be discussed and decided by a group. This group might consist of a small committee of students or the class as a whole. (Students should feel as if the local style is something they are creating themselves rather than something that is imposed on them.)

Here are a few suggestions for getting started with a local stylebook:

Identification. How do you identify the people in your stories? Here might be an entry in a stylebook for a college publication or writing class.

Students are generally identified by rank and major.

Example: John Jones, a junior in journalism, was elected study body president.

If within the context of the story a student has a relevant title, that title should be used.

Example: Mary Smith, president of the Outdoors Club, said the next outing will be Saturday.

Faculty should be identified by rank and department. Do not use the courtesy of Dr. to refer to faculty members. Administrators, even though they have faculty status, should be identified by their administrative title.

Examples: Alex Johnson, an associate professor of biology, is leaving at the end of the year to take a position in private industry.
Paul Blaney, dean of the faculty, said salaries would stay the same as last year.

Buildings. How do you refer to buildings that will appear in the stories the students write? Buildings have formal names, but those may not be the names that are the most familiar or the ones that people are likely to use. Your staff will have to decide. Each major building should have a separate entry in your stylebook. For example:

Reese Phifer Hall
Reese Phifer Hall or simply Phifer Hall is appropriate. The building has had several names since it was built in 1929: Student Union, Old Union, Communication Building. Do not use any of these older names unless the context of the story demands it.

Place names. Sometimes people refer to places by a variety of names, and it is not always clear what they are talking about. You should use the local stylebook to make it clear to the staff and readers what is being referred to when you use a place name. For instance:

Emory and Emory Village
Emory is the town of Emory, Va., where Emory and Henry College is located. Emory Village is the set of buildings on Hillman Highway close to the Emory Crossings Deli.

Courtesy titles. Some school publications choose to ignore the general dictum of AP style that says that no courtesy titles should be used. It is certainly appropriate to do that, particularly in a high school setting where the use of courtesy titles such as “Mr.” and “Mrs.” is expected by students. Your local stylebook should contain an entry about that:

Courtesy titles
Refer to teachers on first refernce with their first and last names and title.

Example: Horace Lardner, mathematics teacher

On second reference use “Mr.” for males and “Ms.” for females. (This rule contradicts the AP style rule of not using courtesy titles.) Do not use “Mrs.” unless it is necessary in the story to distinguish a husband from a wife. Use the term “Coach” on second reference if referring to an athletic team coach, whether a head coach or assistant coach.

Sports and nicknames. A good deal of thought should be given to the way sports teams are referred to and how you handle nicknames. Female sports teams at the high school and college level often use the term “Lady” in front of the school’s nickname to distinguish their team from their male counterparts, such as the Tennessee Lady Volunteers. Your students may want to consult with the coaches or the athletic department to see what they would prefer or what the school’s official names are. You will find many variations in this area. For instance, despite its official nickname or mascot, a team might be commonly referred by a derivation of the name of a longtime coach (the “Stanleys” for Coach Stanley Smith). Here’s a sample entry concerning mascots:

The official school mascot is the Panther, and the male sports teams should be referred to as the Panthers. The female sports teams should be referred to as the Pantherettes, not Lady Panthers.

Other references for which you might want to establish local style rules include the following:

Clichés. Compile a list of clichéd expression that students are using but should NOT be used in student writing.

Trademaks. Are there trademarks in common usage that you should be careful about? Check the AP Stylebook’s references to trademarks and look on page 198 of Journalism: Who, What, When, Where, Why and How for some of the trademarks referred to the in the stylebook. Are there others that have come into use by your students? You should establish rules that follow the AP guidelines for using trademarks.

The purpose of style rules is to help the writer achieve


Style rules should not be onerous. They should be rational and logical. As you are compiling a local style, remind the staff, students and yourself constantly of this principle.

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