What's a Style Guide? And Why Should I Use One?
The English language is complex. There are millions of ways to express yourself and even more ways to write. When you factor in regional dialects, idioms and cliches, slang, and personal writing style, it's a wonder we can communicate at all.
Clear communication often relies on sticking to the rules. But which set of rules? The rules of the English language have become decentralized, not only between nations (U.K., Australia, and Canada come to mind) but also within the United States.
While using regional terms and phraseology is widely acceptable, incorrect grammar is not, especially in marketing and business writing. English grammar features a variety of tenses, irregular verb forms, and intricate rules for sentence structure, and there is no single reference for the rules of the language.
Style Guides to the Rescue
When in doubt, consult a style guide. These guides provide rules and recommendations designed to create consistency within an organization. This allows writers, editors, and proofreaders to reference the same set of detailed instructions. These guides are developed to dictate formatting and structure without relying on personal preference, which in turn informs tone and enhances readability.
Pre-internet style guides were well-worn reference books that could be found on the desk of almost any level of writer, including students, professional writers, journalists, and researchers. Now most style guides can be accessed online, and digital tools exist to correct writing to conform to established styles. For example, if you want to create citations following The AP Style Guide, you can use Grammarly's free citation generator. Or, if you're unsure how to capitalize a headline following The Chicago Manual of Style, you can use this online tool.
So Many Choices
There are a lot of style guides out there, so you have choices. The Chicago Manual of Style and The AP Style Book are commonly used for media writing, but some organizations create their own guides or have a well-established preference. Here are a few to explore using for your next writing project.
Comprehensive Style Guides
The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) is often used for writing, editing, and publishing, especially in academic, professional, and publishing contexts.
The AP Style Guide, or The Associated Press Stylebook, is often used by journalists, writers, editors, and public relations teams. This guide is regarded as a standard reference for many news organizations.
The MLA Style Guide is published by the Modern Language Association. It's often used in academic circles to ensure consistency and clarity. It also instructs on properly crediting sources.
The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage is published by (surprise!) The New York Times. While it's a mandatory rulebook for writers and editors at the Times, it's also used by many other news outlets around the country.
Industry Style Guides
Some industries have information-specific needs. That's why many organizations have responded by developing style guides for their fields. Some of these are standalones, while others are intended to be used in tandem with other style guides, such as The AP Style Guide.
AMA Manual of Style from The American Medical Association focuses on writing, grammar, and terminology for health and medicine.
Scientific Style and Format is produced by The Council of Science Editors for scientific writing.
APA Style was created to guide writing and publishing in the social and behavioral sciences but is also used by researchers and educators in various fields.
ACS Style Guide from The American Chemical Society was created for chemistry professionals.
Cultural Style Guides
Americans are becoming more aware of the need to use inclusive language that embraces diversity. These guides were created to help writers meet this need.
Diversity Style Guide helps journalists and other media professionals write in a sensitive and culturally aware manner.
Conscious Style Guide provides guidance for inclusive representation.
GLAAD Media Reference focuses on approaches and considerations for LGBTQ stories and issues.
Common Style Guide Triggers
Even with a style guide at the ready, all writers encounter multiple consistency issues within any document that trigger the need for clarification. Here are a few of the most common ones.
Rules vary widely, so it's smart to find a rule and stick to it. While it's okay for capitalization to vary among authors or articles, it's not okay to do so within a single piece or document, so reference your style guide early and often.
Guides vary on the use of the Oxford comma*, hyphens, dashes, and placement of commas. Some even share rules for the spacing of text and spaces between sentences.
Use of Numbers
Guidelines for numerals or figures (15) versus spelling out numbers as a word (fifteen) vary widely among guides. Style can also change within a document, depending on usage and context. There are also rules about percentages, mathematics, measurements, and more.
Health care or healthcare? On site or on-site? Email or e-mail? Both usages are technically correct in each of these examples, so check your guide for the preferred use.
Should you italicize book titles or use quotation marks? What about the names of TV shows, magazines, or articles? Style guides have the answers.
Citations and Footnotes
Most style guides outline formats for citing sources. There is a wide variance among styles, so pick one and stick with it.
Breaking the Rules
Don't break the rules if you are creating content for a publication or a company with a well-established style guide. If you see an issue, check with your editor or client, and let them decide whether an exception is warranted.
If you're writing for yourself or clients who don't know or care about style guides, you have more elbow room. Even in this situation, we recommend you pick a guide and stick to it, and if you must make exceptions, make them consistently.
And what if you want to create your own style guide? Go for it! But remember that consistency is required to help the reader understand your meaning.
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Good writing takes a lot of work. Consistently good writing requires experience. If you want to find content writers, bloggers, or ghostwriters for your next project, contact Cup O Content. We'll create a voice and style that makes sense for your goals.
*The Oxford comma, also called the Harvard comma or the serial comma, is used immediately before the coordinating conjunction in a list of three or more items. Example:" I had bread, cheese, and wine." When Oxford commas are not used, the sentence would be punctuated as "I had bread, cheese and wine."