The Copy-Editing and Headline Handbook / the Wall Street Journal Guide to Business Style and Usage

Article excerpt

* Barbara G. Ellis (2001). The Copy-- Editing and Headline Handbook. Cambridge, Mass.: Perseus Publishing. pp.338

* Paul R. Martin (2002). The Wall Street Journal Guide to Business Style and Usage. New York: Wall Street Journal Books. pp. 261

Of all the skills and knowledge that make up the repertoire necessary to be a good journalist, the least important - by far - has to be knowledge of news style. Yet knowing style is a prerequisite for any newsroom position and many other jobs in communications as well. And that is why teachers continue to teach it while more important skills and knowledge expected of journalists either cannot be taught - common sense and general knowledge - or, as with news judgment, must be gained from experience.

Not so many years ago, in the pre-- Watergate era, The Associated Press Stylebook was a mere 52-page booklet. Today it includes a libel manual and more than 300 pages and seems to grow with each annual update. Just three years ago, the New York Times came out with a new edition of its Manual of Style and Usage. Previous versions had appeared in the '70s (use apostrophe before numerals in AP style) and the 80's (with apostrophe after numerals in New York Times style). The Washington Post, The Economist and others also have published stylebooks.

Now comes the Wall Street Journal's Guide to Business Style and Usage. Does the world need another stylebook? The short answer is "yes." But not this one.

Like the other modern stylebooks, the Journal's stylebook is organized alphabetically. This makes perfect sense if you know what you want to look up. It also was necessary to change to an alphabetical organizational system as stylebooks grew in size. But an alphabetical system is a terrible approach for beginners learning the rudiments of style. Just the size of most stylebooks is intimidating to students. Asking them to learn from an alphabetized stylebook is like asking them to prepare for a test on the dictionary. For learners, the stylebook should be organized by topics covering general principles such as capitalization, punctuation, numerals, abbreviations and spelling. And that's the way my dog-eared, pre-Watergate AP stylebook is organized.

Although the Journal's stylebook might not be the best for beginners, does it give veterans something different? Here, the short answer is "no." Although some specialized business terms are defined (for example "Ebitda" - earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) that aren't in the AP stylebook, there remains significant overlap with AP. Indeed, many of the entries match the AP entries word for word, or nearly so. There should be no surprise or plagiarism concern in this; after all, what more needs to be said - to pick an entry at random - about "beside" and "besides" than "Beside means at the side of. Besides means in addition to." And much of the Journal's style guide is made up of such entries, not business-specific terminology. Even so, the book might be useful in a business news writing class.

Perhaps in recognition that style is the least important skill for a journalist, Barbara Ellis begins her Copy-Editing and Headline Writing Handbook by focusing on headlines, and this is the strength of the book. Starting off with headlines is a novel approach and one that should be studied by others. Most copy editing books and workbooks (and I am guilty of this, too) begin with grammar and punctuation exercises. This is a sure turnoff for students and may be one of the reasons that so few look to careers in copy editing. I've often thought that an even more untraditional approach to teaching copy editing would be to start with layout. Many students are computer savvy enough - or want to be - to jump right in with QuarkXPress or Pagemaker. …