Style guides consist of rules and conventions governing the presentation and usage of language consulted by writers, brands and publishing professionals. Each style guide caters best to a different genre, form and topic of writing, and writers should consider these elements to choose a style guide. Many style guides are in use, including Chicago, AP, APA, MLA or Bluebook, and in this post, I will walk you through these styles and which could suit your text best. When copyediting or proofreading, I consult them routinely, but ultimately the decision about the choice of a style guide most often belongs to the author.
What is a style guide and why do you need to follow one?
Style guides are collections of conventions and rules guiding every language decision concerning the text, from punctuation and spelling word choice to format gathered into one database. In a nutshell, their primary purpose is to ensure that all documents in a given environment present a consistent look and use of language.
More broadly, style guides eliminate uncertainties in writing and editing when multiple options are possible. For example, both advisor and adviser are correct spellings of the same word. A style guide will specify which form is preferred.
Overall, style guides improve the readability and comprehension of the texts by presenting similar information in similar ways and rid them of incorrectness, inconsistencies and discrepancies. Consistency is one of the most important features of good writing, and style guides to step in to guide and guard it.
What to consider when choosing a style guide?
No style guide works perfectly. Each has been developed for different areas and forms, so to choose a style guide that will work for your text, consider the following:
- House or company style.If you are working with a text that will be published (a book, journal article, white paper), publishing house, journal editorial boards or company, first ask your editor or manager about their house style guide.
- Genre.Learn which style guide is standard for the writing you do. This will help you prepare manuscripts for publishing and offer you guidance to turn. For instance, when the company for which you are writing does not have a style guide in place.
- Niche or field. Many industries and academic fields follow specific style guides designed to express clearly and consistently their niche needs.
- Circulation format. A blog post will be better suited to follow a different style guide than an academic book, so the medium of publication is also important to consider when you choose a style guide.
When to consult a style guide?
No writer or editor is expected to remember all the language rules; that is why we have dictionaries and style guides. And style guides offer different guidelines for specific areas, which, when in doubt, should prompt you to diagnose your style guide:
- capitalisation of heading
- compound words
- abbreviations and acronyms.
What are the most common style guides?
AP, APA, Bluebook, Chicago, IEEE or MLA — let us review some most commonly used style guides, how they differ and for what texts they were designed.
|AP||Journalism, media, marketing, public relations|
|APA||Social, medical and natural sciences and humanities|
|Bluebook||Legal, government and administrative texts|
|CMOS||Humanities, social sciences, sciences; fiction and non-fiction|
|MLA||Humanities, especially language and literature|
Associated Press Stylebook (AP)
AP style is a set of standards for writing in news media and one of the most comprehensive style guides. It includes recommendations for grammar, spelling, punctuation and usage. Because it is used by media and journalists, it is updated annually to define standards for news topics, for instance, COVID-19 or gender-neutral pronouns, focusing on how to choose the right term (and avoid the wrong one) in a given context. The current 56th edition of AP Stylebook is available online and in paper form.
Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA)
APA style guide started in 1929 as an article written by a group of psychologists, anthropologists and business managers. APA has published seven editions of the Publication Manual since the first edition in 1952. APA style guide comprises a set of standards to make scientific writing easier to understand, including guidelines on grammar, spelling, punctuation and usage. It also developed its signature in-text citation style, ethical standards for publishing research and guidelines on how to format an academic paper. Academic social, medical and natural sciences and humanities commonly follow the APA style guide. APA’s most recent, seventh edition of the Publication Manual is available online and in a print version.
|In-text citation||(Woodward, 1987, 315–16)|
|References||Woodward, D. (Ed.). (1987). Art and Cartography: Six historical essays. University of Chicago Press.|
Chicago Style Guide (CMOS)
Developed by the Chicago University Press in 1906 and updated seventeen times since, CMOS offers standards for writing in commercial and academic publishing and is one of the most widely used style guides. It includes recommendations for grammar, spelling, punctuation and usage, manuscript formatting and two variations of source citation: notes and bibliography (footnotes /endnotes with superscript numbers) and author-date (in-text citations similar to APA). You can access it via an online subscription or buy a hard copy. Chicago is used by academic writers, predominantly in humanities, and commercial fiction and non-fiction publishers.
|In-text citation||(Woodward 1987, 315–16)|
|References||Woodward, David, ed. 1987. Art and Cartography: Six Historical Essays. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.|
|Notes and bibliography style|
|Footnote/endnote||David Woodward, ed., Art and Cartography: Six Historical Essays (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 315–16.|
|References||David Woodward, ed. Art and Cartography: Six Historical Essays.Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.|
The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation is the style guide for legal citation originating in 1926. It explains how to cite court cases, constitutions, statutes, legal codes, reports, periodicals, government documents and many other types of texts that serve as sources in legal writing.
The Bluebook is available as an online subscription and in printed form. It is one of the most comprehensive authorities on citing legal documentation and is often referred to by other, more general, style guides as legal subject matter experts.
Modern Language Association of America (MLA) Handbook
MLA style guide primarily established guidelines for citation and formatting in academic papers in humanities, particularly literature and language research. This style focuses on source citations, and provides limited guidance on writing mechanics and no recommendations for language usage. MLA style began in 1951 when the Modern Language Association of America published the MLA Style Sheet, later updated into MLA Handbook. Since 1977, MLA has published nine editions of the Handbook. Most of its content has been available online through the MLA Style Center since 2009.
|In-text citation||(Woodward, 315–16)|
|References||Woodward, David, editor. Art and Cartography: Six historical essays. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.|
To choose a style guide that will best suit the needs of your text, consider its genre (e.g. academic text, a novel), medium (e.g. online, paper publication), and topical area it pertains to (e.g. humanities, legal). Contact me to choose the right style guide for your text and ensure it is publishing-ready; you can also ask me for a free sample edit (and remember to take advantage of my early bird discount).