SCOTT: Back in 1999, I was writing and editing and photographing and eventing for a nonprofit in Chicago. We served people with disabilities throughout the city, helping them with housing and employment and counseling and other needs. My job was to produce a lot of public relations material — and this was before everything went digital, so we were still producing mainly print-based stuff: trifold brochures, annual reports, newsletters that were mailed to stakeholders. Not really any social media at the time. I would do everything from taking pictures and writing captions for those pictures to interviewing staffers and clients — that’s what we called the people we served: clients — and writing copy for stories and then designing and laying out publications for the copy. Typical jack-of-all-trades for a two-person department.
One of the things I did as well was to write press releases for the various media outlets across the city: newspapers, magazines, radio, TV. Now, if you know anything about writing for the media, even if it’s just reading news stories, let’s say — and I know there’s a lot of contention about whether we read like we used to or not; we certainly don’t — but if you pay attention to how a news story is written, you can pick out certain stylistic devices that journalists use. The standard bearer is the Associated Press style guide.
In 2020, the AP released its 55th edition, so it’s been around for a while — since the mid-1800s. And there is, thankfully, a helpful online version, so the AP can update its writing standards more frequently, as we see cultural, political, social aspects of the world moving so much faster now, forcing language to evolve much more quickly.
You use the style guide like a dictionary or an encyclopedia. The guide gives suggestions and guidance on things like using punctuation, capitalization, and spelling. It provides guidance on larger topics such as reporting about COVID-19. The word COVID, for example, should be all-capped; that is, every letter — C-O-V-I-D — is capitalized. And it’s preferable to write “COVID-19” when writing about the virus, but you can use simply “COVID” when you need to shorten the term for space, such as in headlines.
The AP also guides writers on how to use inclusive language when writing about race, gender, sexuality, disability, and other cultural issues.
Working for an organization advocating for the rights of people with disabilities, I paid particular attention to the disability section of the guide. This was back at the end of the last century, in the late 1990s, when we had to rely on a print version of the AP. And their guidance sometimes didn’t quite gel with our own standards of writing. We — and many in the disability community — had our own ideas about how we should be writing about disability culture. The pages of the Associated Press style guide had their own standards. Sometimes those two standards — ours and theirs — agreed. Many times not. And we fought to be heard. We fought for our own clients to be heard.Continue reading →