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From AJR,   March 2010  issue

The Joke Has Legs   

WEB EXCLUSIVE
The triumph of Fake AP Stylebook


By Stephanie Gleason
Stephanie Gleason is an AJR editorial assistant.     

"From the academic degrees entry: Bachelor of Arts in print journalism, or bachelor's in print journalism," the AP Stylebook Twitter feed @APStylebook reminds its followers.

"I can't tell if I'm happy or sad that's not a joke feed," Mark Hale instant messaged Ken Lowery as he looked at that item last October.

"Hey, that's not too bad an idea," Lowery replied.

And so the cult favorite Fake AP Stylebook was born.

Hale, 32, who lives in Louisville, wrote a comic book blog from 2003 to 2008. He met Lowery online in 2004. Hale's blog was Lowery's favorite because "he'd write about just the worst stuff he had in his collection." Although Lowery lives in Dallas and the two have never met, they're in nearly constant communication through instant messages and e-mail.

Fake AP Stylebook was not Lowery and Hale's first idea for a joke Twitter feed. Its predecessors included @ForeverCon, which featured "live updates from the greatest convention in the multiverse" that never ends; @ThisReallyHurts, tweets from someone experiencing a gradually increasing amount of pain; and @ZombieHorde, tweets from, you guessed it, a zombie horde.

And so Fake AP Stylebook began the way many of Lowery and Hale's previous attempts had: They hash-tagged the idea and started tweeting it on their personal accounts to find out, "Does this sound like something you'd follow? Does [the joke] have legs?"

On October 20 @FakeAPStylebook launched. Now, just six months later, Fake AP Stylebook boasts more than 100,000 followers and a book deal.

Yes, the joke has legs.

"This is the huge one, it turned out," Lowery says. But the founders say the initial success of Fake AP Stylebook hasn't changed their lives much.

"I'm still broke and unemployed," Hale says.

Andrew Kunka, a Fake AP Stylebook contributor and English professor at the University of South Carolina, Sumter, whose area of research is comic books and graphic novels, says the group has "kind of just been goofing off with stuff like this for a long time. It almost seemed like it was inevitable that something would click. We were doing a lot of stuff on Twitter that was just fun stuff that we were entertaining ourselves with. [Fake AP Stylebook] just happened to be one thing out of maybe half a dozen things that we had put out there."

The group ran in the same comic book blog circles and eventually linked up and formed an online writer's group.

Lowery says he and another contributor had been trying, unsuccessfully, to get the group to collaborate on a project for some time before Fake AP Stylebook debuted. "It was never much more than a few lines of conversation before it went back to talking about Transformers," Lowery says. "And then it happened."

Lowery, 29, and has spent most of his life writing movie reviews. "I've always wanted to be a movie critic. I've been reading Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael since I was 12 years old. It seems kind of futile now, because it seems like a profession that's not going to exist in the capacity that I grew up wanting to do it within five years," he says. But "even if I'm writing for an audience of no one for free, I'll probably do movie reviews for the rest of my life... I can't not do it."

Most contributors have not worked in journalism. Even Hale's first encounter with the AP Stylebook was somewhat by chance. After dropping out of Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, he took some Japanese courses at Indiana University Southeast. While looking through the course catalog under J for Japanese, he noticed journalism. "I thought, 'Well, what the hell. I like to write, and I hate writing English papers.' " He enrolled in reporting, writing and editing, and the AP Stylebook was a required text. "I think I'd barely heard of the Associated Press before that."

Hale says a lot of his sense of humor about the field comes from his first journalism professor, Ron Allman, who introduced the style book as a great way to win bar bets. "Some of it's so ridiculous," Hale says, pointing out the fact that, according to AP style, there's no period in Dr Pepper. It was the subject of his first joke on Fake AP Stylebook.

Much of Kunka's inspiration for jokes comes from his wife, who works on grammar textbooks. "She's sort of doing the straight thing that we're making fun of," he says. Kunka's favorite entry that he's written for Fake AP Stylebook: "The antecedent for 'she' in 'that's what she said' is generally understood to be 'your mom.' "

"I want a T-shirt made of that one," he says.

"We come at this from different angles," contributor Dave Lartigue says. "We're not hitting the same joke or even the same type of joke over and over. I attribute a lot of the success to that." Lartigue, who works for a software company, describes himself as "an adult fan of LEGOs." He also has no journalism background and didn't own a copy of the AP Stylebook when the feed began.

Anna Neatrour is the only female contributor to Fake AP Stylebook, which she says makes her less likely to come up with "your mom" jokes. A librarian who lives in Salt Lake City, Neatrour maintains a blog of Japanese comics reviews. She says that because she doesn't have a journalism background, she comes at Fake AP Stylebook from a different direction, that of a media consumer. "The idea of giving fake writing advice and things like that, I think, is a little more universal than just goofing on the real AP Stylebook."

Matt Wilson, a contributor (and former AJR editorial assistant) who spent the last four years as a reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, agrees. "I'm actually really glad that the group has journalists and non-journalists alike in it. Because we want to come from the perspective of the reader just as much we do a writer. Or we want to come from the perspective of the new style of journalism, blogging and that sort of thing, as much as we do newspapers."

So why did Fake AP Stylebook catch on? "It's a matter of timing," Kunka says. "I think a lot of people, especially in journalism, were looking for something to laugh at, and they found that there's kind of a nice release in someone making fun of what's going on in journalism right now."

Whatever it was, people kept following and book agents came calling. The book, to be published next spring by Three Rivers Press, is finished except for two chapters. There are 15 active contributors and two people whose work has been pulled from the Twitter feed but who are not contributing new material.

At least 90 percent of the book consists of new material that has not appeared on the Twitter feed, Lowery says. Using the same format as AP Stylebook, the Fake AP Stylebook will be about two-thirds tips. The back half is glossary terms, and there will be "how to" sections, including "How to write a dating site profile."

Although there are a few nods to the actual AP Stylebook including a particularly long section on weapons and military "because the AP Stylebook has like a weird amount on weapons and the military" Lowery says that the idea is to capture the AP Stylebook tone.

"For us it was never a statement or anything to kind of riff on [the AP Stylebook] it's a joke prompt basically," Lowery says. "If there's a hook to the joke, whatever it is the Associated Press is trying to do by finalizing and killing stone dead the English language to make sure it's the same for all time, that's just completely impossible. There's so many completely absurd paths people take in writing that you might as well just make it up as you go along anyway."