The folks behind @FakeAPStylebook have spent the past year turning their popular Twitter account into a book that they’ve dubbed “an absolutely phony guide” for writers.
The book, titled “Write More Good,” highlights different beats in journalism and offers advice on headline writing, media law and punctuation and grammar. Each chapter features a satirical glossary that mocks common words and phrases used in the profession.
“I think it’s a parody of journalism — both the final product and the process of journalism,” said Ken Lowery, co-editor of “Write More Good. “It’s about how the sausage is made. I don’t think it’s mean; it’s almost loving in a way. It shows that these are all the cliches and stereotypes that a deadline-driven life has to fall back on.”
The @FakeAPStylebook Twitter account gained about 10,000 followers the day it launched in October 2009. Not long after, agents started to reach out to the @FakeAPStylebook folks to see if they wanted to write a book. The opportunity to write jokes in more than 140 characters, Lowery said, was a key selling point.
“We wanted it to not be an Internet book per se but a real comedy book that had some depth to it,” he said by phone. “It was a point of pride to not just copy and paste the Twitter feed and call it a day.”
Making fun of poor reporting and writing habits
Similar to @FakeAPStylebook, most of the jokes in the book relate to journalism, language and style. In the glossary for the news and headline writing chapter, a “quote” is defined as “What someone says. Or, you know, the general gist of it.” And a “folo”? That’s “slang for ‘follow-up story,’ i.e. the same story you ran yesterday with two new paragraphs of information.”
The jokes play on some of the writers’ frustration with journalism and the stories they read in the news.
“I think most of us consider it a pretty high calling, but we get frustrated with the way it’s carried out,” Lowery said. “There are cliches and other poor writing habits. It’s not so much poor grammar and usage, but I guess I’d characterize it as lazy thinking. You can’t turn out a Pulitzer Prize-winning story all the time, but there’s still a general sense that journalists could do better than this.”
Other jokes try to capture the “old boy’s club” spirit that characterized newsrooms years ago. Lowery said talking through the jokes with his editor and the other writers was a critical part of the editing process. Sometimes they’d realize that in trying to mock the “old boy’s club” spirit, they had gone too far. When that was the case, they would either remove the joke or rework it.
“We wanted to invoke how journalists used to behave and how they used to talk about women in the workplace and professional women’s sports,” Lowery said. “Sometimes we just hit that one a little too hard and it stopped being funny.”
It helped that their editor was a female.
“On some of them, our editor reined us in,” said Lowery, a former copy editor at the United Methodist Reporter. “Thank God for her advice because we were a little oblivious to how it read in aggregate, since most of the jokes were written and submitted independent of each other.”
Of the book’s 15 writers — who were all part of a pre-existing writers group — three or four were in journalism jobs when @FakeAPStylebook started. Now, only one of them is. And only one of the writers, Anna Neatrour, is a female.
“It kind of turned into a sausage party. We’ve been called out for it, but we don’t plan to change it,” Lowery said. “We were all friends before this happened and it’s been an amazing miracle that we’ve stayed friends. We just feel like bringing in more people would complicate problems where there weren’t any before.”
Dealing with a “grueling” revision process
The editing process for the book — which went through five revisions — was “grueling,” Lowery said. He and Hale edited each chapter as it came in, then read the book a couple of times to check for consistency and coherency before submitting it. They then did two more edits based on their editor’s suggestions, and proofed a printed copy of the book last fall.
“I really learned what ‘the long haul’ of book-writing is like,” said Lowery, who admitted he was never a very good copy editor. “When you’re in journalism you’re married to a story for a few days, maybe a week or in some cases a month or a bit longer. But we were neck-deep in this material for the better part of a year. Sometimes I loved it, sometimes I didn’t even want to look at it, but there’s an emotional attachment to this book that I’ve rarely felt in my professional life.”
To keep the process organized, Lowery and Hale doled out chapters to subsets of the writing team. A few of the chapters were written as a group, including “The Morgue,” which satirizes the death of print journalism.
Finding a common voice among 15 writers
For the chapters involving everyone, Lowery and Hale created a rough outline for the writers to follow. For the chapters that were written by smaller groups, the writers came up with an outline on their own that they then showed to Lowery and Hale before they began writing.
“This allowed the writers to stay fresh and write just what they wanted to write, and this way we got a few chapters done every week,” said Lowery, who admitted he was never a very good copy editor. “[Hale] and I would then take the submissions and beat them into a recognizable shape, to give the book one ‘voice’ as much as possible.”
Having so many writers contribute to the book proved challenging, in part because their jokes overlapped.
“We cut out a few meta-jokes about scoring book deals from online frivolities, more on how condescending sports media is toward professional women’s sports in the Sports chapter, and just how much we resent the Jenny McCarthy-fication of science and medicine writing,” Lowery said. “As individual submissions, they were fine; as an aggregate, the similar jokes would start to pile up.”
None of the jokes shy away from stereotypes about journalism and the real AP Stylebook. The book defines an editor as an “alcoholic,” and calls the Stylebook “Some bullshit. Thinks it’s important, but it’s not.”
Giving journalists a reason to laugh
Despite the harshness of the jokes, Lowery said he has a lot of respect for journalism. At South by Southwest, he met Colleen Newvine, who helps run the AP Stylebook’s Twitter feed. She was complimentary of the @FakeAPStylebook account, Lowery said, and even gave him a free subscription to the Stylebook Online.
Lowery’s not sure what the @FakeAPStylebook team’s next big project will be. A lot of it, he said, will depend on how well the book does. The team recently created The Content Farm, a site that mocks content farms and “their absurd How To articles.” The site features stories such as “How to pick your nose” and “How to hire a freelancer.” (Just go to a place where freelancers congregate, the story says, and jangle the spare change in your pocket.)
Lowery said the goal of all these projects isn’t to offend people; it’s to add some comic relief to the profession. At least once a week, he gets a note from an @FakeAPStylebook follower who says, “I needed this laugh.”
“Don’t take the book as if we hate you all, because we don’t. We think journalism is a noble profession and we think it’s worth salvaging,” he said. “But things maybe are not as bad as they seem. If a bunch of schmucks can get a book out of a mock Twitter account, I think there’s hope for news.”