AP StyleGuard and the Death of Editing

By Mark Nichol

Thanks to a new software program called AP StyleGuard, human intervention in improvement of written content is no longer necessary. All editors, please clean out your desks and report to Human Resources for your exit interview in five minutes; HR staff will provide information about career-change counseling on request.

That’s a joke, folks. (So’s the headline.)

But StyleGuard is fact, not fiction: The Associated Press announced it last week in a press release. According to the release, the plug-in “is similar in functionality to Microsoft Word’s spelling and grammar proofing tools and intuitively checks Word documents for the AP Stylebook’s fundamental spelling, language, punctuation, usage, and journalistic style guidelines.”

That’s all well and good — just another layer of technological assistance for writers, like spell-checking functions — but every editorial enhancement like this increases the possibility of two unfortunate outcomes:

1. Upper management will assume that such tools obviate or reduce the need for flesh-and-blood-and-red-ink editors.
2. Writers will become less diligent about taking responsibility for the quality and clarity of their prose.

Call me biased, but I strongly believe that the classic editorial-review protocol — writer, editor(s), proofreader — will never go out of (ahem) style. The latter stages can be (and often are) omitted, but at the expense of editorial excellence. As an editor and writer, I know all too well, from both perspectives, how the lack of an editing stage can have a deleterious impact on prose, or at least result in published errors.

Also, I know that tools can become crutches if they supplant rather than supplement human judgment. Spell-checking and grammar-checking programs, StyleGuard, and similar innovations to come will never replace the writer’s own critical eye (or an objective second opinion), and there is some evidence that using them can cause one’s own editing skills to deteriorate. Not only that, but less skillful writers can overrely on such tools, accept their sometimes flawed corrections without question, and otherwise ignore their shortcomings.

Do I use spell-checking? Of course. No sensible writer (or editor) should bypass the opportunity for its assistance. But I overrule it regularly, and I carefully peruse my prose (admittedly, sometimes not carefully enough) before I submit it for publication.

Would I use StyleGuard? Of course — if I adhered to Associated Press style. (And if I used a PC; it’s not compatible with Macs.) But I don’t. It’s ideal for writers who do so, thoroughly or with few exceptions. But AP style is highly formulaic, allowing for little flexibility or ambiguity. Compare it with the much more complex (and therefore, for me, much more useful) guidance of The Chicago Manual of Style. Because Chicago often offers alternatives — and is much more detailed — it’s ill suited for a regimented software program.

By all means, buy AP StyleGuard if it suits your needs. But don’t uninstall your brain.

Click here to get access to 800+ interactive grammar exercises!


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20 Responses to “AP StyleGuard and the Death of Editing”

  • dave

    I agree very much with your points about technology making writers less wary of their own prose.

    Certain individuals in my establishment have issued very badly worded emails, either in terms of sentence construction, or using the wrong word (‘there’ versus ‘their’, ‘your’ instead of ‘you’re’ etc). When confronted with such shortcomings the reply is always ‘Oh well, I spell-checked it, and nothing was flagged up.’

    There is nothing better than casting your own critical eye over a piece of your own writing before pressing ‘Send’. Failure to do so does nothing to improve your own standard of writing, and can mean your communications seem unprofessional.

  • Leif G.S. Notae

    Good article Mark, I appreciate the information as I was unaware of this new software being released.

    I have to admit there are more than enough proofing/editing software options out there and I know some debate the merits between AP and Chicago, but do you think it is more of a money grab or a good idea being implemented?

    I will have to take a look for myself and see what’s going on with this new option. Thanks for the heads up on this.

  • Colton Cooper

    Just read literally any news post on nearly any website, and many newspapers, and you’ll see the proliferation of automated writing – and the obvious death of editing.

    What is happening?

    Costs rise (labor costs; I.E. employees), programs look like automated solutions… result: horrific and embarassing mistakes in nearly every published piece online today.

    I used to get upset (How in thee Hell could they…). Then it went to “I just can’t believe they’d let that go.” Now, I realize, there is no one to get anything go.

    It’s a sad shame, and again, in my eyes, embarassing. I do note, however, that I am not a perfect writer or editor. I make… mistakes – I said it. I’m human.

    But I’d never miss the crap that is published in our media today! Just one lowly human writers opinion, for what it’s worth – Hal. 🙂
    cc.

  • Colton Cooper

    See: my point exactly in my paragraph 4 above. It should read “…let anything go.”

    But a simply proofread and it’s corrected (umm, moderator, if you would give me a hand here…).

    LOL. It is a joy to write, a joy to learn, and an ecstatic pleasure to make sure that my work is correct to the best of my ability. That’s a hint to the writers left who work for MSNBC.com and Fox News.

    Thanks for enduring my soapbox performance. I am now finished.
    cc.

  • John Peterson

    Good article. Ages ago, when WordPerfect was the premier word processing program, there was a grammar checker called Grammatik that one could install to work within WordPerfect. It was a wonderful program that came with a good, basic guide to good grammar–and prose. It parsed sentences and gave suggestions for correction that made sense most of the time. The grammar checker within Word stinks and it always has, so I don’t pay much attention to it, preferring my own critical review. In other words, you’re right.

  • thebluebird11

    HEAR, HEAR! Contrary to your assertion that the first paragraph of your post is a joke, it’s no joke. To us in the medical transcription field, it’s quite serious. We’ve heard over and over for years how some technology or other will eliminate the need for humans to do our job. And because it costs money to use a human, upper-level management is always looking for ways to cut those costs. Every time a vendor comes along with some newfangled technology that promises to eliminate the need for a human, the CFOs knee-jerk lunge for it. We have voice recognition, speech recognition, programs that will automatically extract medical information for medical coding, link it to medical billing…never mind that all you need is one teensy error somewhere, a word that is left out, a “left” instead of “right,” a heavy accent, and it’s like playing “Telephone”: What comes out the other end is nothing like what went in (or what SHOULD have gone in).
    In short, there is no SUBSTITUTE for intelligent human input. There is ASSISTANCE, which is what these technologies should be relied on to provide. I love technology, but I’m not giving up my brain! Thank you for validating my feelings so well and making the day for me and my colleagues!

  • Precise Edit

    As I tell my students regarding their word processor’s grammar checker: Use it but don’t trust it.

  • Cliff Wilkinson

    Mark,

    I am puzzled by a sentence in your next-to-last paragraph:

    “But AP style is highly formulaic, allowing for little flexibility or ambiguity.”

    Perhaps I am misunderstanding what you want to say, but it sounds as though you think ambiguity is something we should strive for.

    Do you perhaps mean that AP does not allow for subtlety or nuance?

  • Eva Blaskovic

    Thank you! As a writer and editor myself, I wholeheartedly agree with the points you make, especially, “I strongly believe that the classic editorial-review protocol — writer, editor(s), proofreader — will never go out of (ahem) style. The latter stages can be (and often are) omitted, but at the expense of editorial excellence.”

    The following message has been on my website since its inception in 2009: “Editing is an art, not a program. Although spelling and grammar checkers help, they are a good start rather than a good finish. In the end, the human mind still has to interpret the recommendations.”

    Respect for human editors, and for editing in general, is falling. With all the software out there, people are rather miffed when they are asked to pay for editing or proofreading services, and often human editing is the first process they’ll cut from their budget. As awareness of the “loss of editorial excellence” grows, I hope that trend reverses. Thank you for posting your views in such a humourous and enlightening manner.

  • Mark Nichol

    Cliff:

    Yes, that would have been a better choice of words. Thanks!

  • Alexandre

    Thank you to the heavens Mark for your more-than-amazing job. I don’t know how you can manage updating this site even to this day. Please remember that you don’t go unnoticed. You are unbelievable!

    -A big fan

  • peggye johnson

    Perhaps the newspapers still edit their publishings. I tend to read a well-known news website now, so I haven’t kept up with newspapers’ editing. Since poor grammar and punctuation is the norm at this news website, I have little respect for the writers here. Punctuation creates a recognizable and logical order in written communication. It is just plain brutish to burden a reader with the extra effort of interpreting the writter’s communication.

  • Bill Polm

    Yep. Agree.

    It will take one heck of a supercomputer to come even close to writing as well as we humans, with sufficient skill and fluency, can.

    Writing isn’t a science, though it can have scientific aspects to it at times. But basically it is predominantly an art. And that requires a human.

    For too long intermediate writers have bought into the overly-logical approach to language taken by teacher who are eager to teach, to impose strict usage-rules, but cannot write very well.

    Language like us can be logical, but it is never totally logical, reasoned. To me that’s the shortsightedness of those practioners of contemporary science that aver that the physical universe is all there is. Not!

  • Meg Brookman

    TIME TO TAKE TO THE STREETS IN OPERATION INKWELL!

    We had better resurrect editing soon. I can barely stand to read my beloved New York Times anymore, laden as it is with multitudinous errors and missing words. In these difficult days, when editors yearn for just enough work to scrape by, shouldn’t we push for the restoration of our profession to its once venerated position?

    SHARPEN YOUR WITS AND YOUR PENS AND MARCH FOR WORD SANITY!

  • thebluebird11

    @Meg: Oooh, where do I sign the petition? Operation Inkwell…Op-Ink…love it! However, I’m sure we’d be operating on a shoestring budget, and ostracized to the point of having to meet at night in warehouses with blackout on the windows…Ah, well. Maybe the pendulum will swing the other way at some point.

  • Deborah H

    It should be noted that AP’s Style Guard is for newspapers.

  • Mark Nichol

    Deborah:

    It’s true that the Associated Press Stylebook and AP’s StyleGuard were created with newspapers in mind, but many magazines and other publications, both print and online, rely on the Stylebook and, presumably, on the software, too.

  • Mark MacKay

    I agree with you Mark. But “decision makers” outside of the editorial loop may see StyleGuard as an automation tool – a solution that reduces costs (staff) and improves the bottom line.

    How do professional writers engage management in a conversation about writing process and voice? I think we could connect voice with brand and brand with money or market position. Monetize voice and reveal StyleGuard as a voice killer. It just might work.

  • Stephen Thorn

    I always caution my writing friends and fellow ink-slingers that “Spell Checker is not really your friend.” At best, it is a useful tool, but it has no understanding or discernment to ensure the words chosen are the correct ones (or, for that matter, the BEST ones, a distinction invaluable to an author). And yes, relying on it can easily produce lackadaisical and slipshod habits. It’s rare for me to read a book, magazine, or newspaper (and please, don’t get me started on amateur publications like blogs!) without stumbling over some error that a good proofreader would have caught.

    I compare publishing my work to dressing up for a tremendously important job interview. I want to make sure my hair is combed, my tie is pressed and unstained, my shoes are shined, and all the other things that will influence my impression to my prospective employer. I consult a mirror and perhaps another person to be sure I haven’t missed anything. Using Spell Checker and its peers to check my (work’s) appearance without looking into the mirror (repeated proofing) myself is like asking the opinion of a fool who evaluates me while tipsy.

  • jon

    The classical system of quality control – writing, editing, proofing — was great. but it is gone. finished. over.
    you can mourn the passing of a great age in journalism and waste time crying in your coffee, or you can adapt to the new age and be productive again.
    I am not happy to see copyeditors lose their jobs. I was not happy when robots replaced studio camera operators on the broadcast side.
    And I really hate that the typical “multi-media journalist” does the work of three journalists. But no one really cares whether I am happy. Greater forces (economics, technology, generational change) are at work here.
    So get used to it … or move aside.
    I am planning to subscribe to StyleGuard. Tonight. Even if I am quite happy that I came of age when I really had to learn the rules. I learned them. I read the book, highlighter in hand, and the studied it. I am better off for it.

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