With all the confusion that comes along with using a language that isn’t formally regulated, we writers and editors are constantly searching for the “correct” way to practice our craft. This can lead to fear, tantrums, psychotic episodes, and general chaos.
But do not fear, dear writers and editors! This is where style guides (also called stylebooks or style manuals) come swooping in—jackets outstretched, pages fluttering calmly—to save the day.
Style guides exist to help writers and editors wrangle the English language into a consistent form of communication. This reduces confusion for the reader and also cuts down on the amount of Excedrin Migraine your copyeditor will need. A word of warning, however: style guides don’t explain everything, so your first priority is to ensure that the writing makes sense.
The Head Honchos of Style
1. The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS)
The go-to stylebook for anyone in book publishing, The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) was first published by the University of Chicago Press in 1906. (It is currently on its 16th edition.) If you’re writing fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or academic papers that you are hoping to publish in book form, chances are that CMS is the style guide for you. It comes in book form, or you can buy the online version, which includes access to forums and other resources (paid via monthly subscription).
2. The Associated Press Stylebook (AP)
The Associated Press Stylebook is the standard style guide for newspapers, magazines, and other forms of media. We see this style of writing daily, and it’s the norm for anyone schooled in journalism or media studies. Rules from this stylebook are often confused with CMS rules simply because they are both so prevalent in writing today. For example: AP style does not use the serial comma (the comma before “and” in a list), while CMS requires it. The AP Stylebook is available in book form or as an online subscription.
3. The Modern Language Association Stylebook (MLA)
The MLA handbook is one of the most recent style guides—it was originally published in 1977. Like its official title firmly states, this stylebook is used primarily for research papers, primarily in the arts, literature, and humanities fields. It has been lauded as “the style Bible for for most college students” by Newsweek, and there’s a reason for that: anyone who has written a research paper for school has probably used MLA style before. This handbook is available in book form, with free access to the online version available with purchase.
4. The American Psychological Association Stylebook (APA)
Originally published in 1929, the APA handbook is used mainly by those working in the behavioral and social sciences. In addition to providing a solid style guide for scientists and researchers, it has chapters devoted entirely to documenting research citations correctly and avoiding plagiarism. It is available in book form.
Disclaimer: Try too hard to find the precise rule for one word in a 1,000-page manuscript and you’ll start to develop unattractive habits, like biting your nails to the quick or pulling out your eyebrows, one strand at a time.
1. Find out which style you should be following.
Use the tips above to see where your writing fits. Are you writing a research paper? MLA. An academic paper that will be published in a book? CMS. A newspaper article? AP.
2. Skim through the style manual for the basic rules you need to know.
You don’t have to memorize the entire manual, but familiarize yourself with the major rules that apply to every sentence (punctuation, capitalization, etc.). Get to know the book’s layout so you can look up the answers to any specific questions later.
3. When in doubt, focus on readability, then hand it off to an expert.
If you aren’t sure whether you need to hyphenate “readily available” or put a comma before “and” in a list, just focus on overall readability. Will your audience understand your meaning? Put yourself in their shoes, and don’t purposefully try to write in a style that will go over your audience’s head. Once you’ve reached a stopping point with your draft, send it off to your friendly neighborhood copyeditor to tune up.
Have you struggled with style guides before? Are you still not sure which style guide applies to your writing? Have you started biting your nails or pulling your hair from the stress of it all? Or are you a brazen rule breaker determined to give your copyeditor a heart attack? Tell me in the comments!