Style Guides: Which Ones, Why Bother?

Chicago Manual of Style Ornament
Yes, grammar fiends, you can make your own Chicago Manual of Style holiday ornament. Click on the photo and scroll down to the bottom of the page.

If you’re a writer, you might have heard the names of different style guides bandied about. Or maybe you’ve wondered if “Chicago Style” is what the well-dressed gentlemen of the Windy City are wearing this season. As an indie author, you might mutter about why these rules are being foisted upon us, because if you wanted rules, you would polish up some query letters and try to snag an agent and a big publisher. Turns out a decent style guide can be a big help for all writers who want to share their work with readers.

Why use one – In a word, consistency. In three words, consistency, communication, and clarity. Humans like consistency, and clarity and good communication can ensure that the message you intend to deliver to your readers has the best chance of being received. It can be confusing to readers if you spell a word seven different ways or capitalize a term halfway through the book and then switch back and forth. It also gives the impression that you don’t care enough about your professional image to take the time and effort to iron out the details. Even if you create your own style, keeping terms consistent can reinforce that you’ve made some intentional choices and not errors.

Here’s an overview of the major style guides:

Chicago Manual of Style (CMoS) – The Chicago Manual of Style is the Big Kahuna used in US publishing and increasingly in Canada. Literally, it’s big. It’s available in a hardcover version that costs about sixty bucks and doubles as an effective doorstop and hand weight; you can also fork over about half that annually for an online subscription. I like print because I can scribble all over it and dog-ear pages I come back to over and over. The indexing can require a bit of a learning curve, especially if you are not an editor, but use it often enough and you’ll get the hang of it. Some solutions can be a touch vague; learning how to extrapolate from the many examples will help you in situations that aren’t so cut-and-dried.

Oxford Style Manual – The main style guide for UK English, this combines the former Hart’s Rules and the Oxford Dictionary. I use the online version. Very handy if you’re a US editor working on a UK-English manuscript. Or if you’re a UK writer writing…well, anything.

Associated Press (AP) Style Book – Mainly used by journalists, this guide is driven by several factors, including the increasingly arcane need to save print column inches and clarify problems caused by old-fashioned typesetting. (Can you tell I’m not a fan? Can you tell that Syracuse University’s equivalent of J. Jonah Jameson metaphorically forced this down my throat during journalism school?) There are small differences between AP and Chicago, and with each edition, AP tends to adopt changes already being recommended by Chicago. For example, Chicago tends to eschew unnecessary capitalization (called, creatively, “down” style) and periods in acronyms. Yet (as of this writing) AP lists “U.S.” as their preferred use and recommends no italicization or quotes used around titles of books and other major works. If you are a journalist, however, the AP Stylebook contains a great guide to media law, including defamation, libel, and proper use of social media for reporters.

American Psychiatric Association (APA) Style – This guide is most often called into play in academic writing, particularly in the social sciences. It focuses quite a bit on footnotes, attributions, bibliographies, and all the goodies you might see in a dissertation, academic paper, or similar formal writing. If you are a student, a teacher, or an editor or proofreader of academic writing, this could make a great professional companion. And it’s available online from several sources, but this is my favorite.

Publisher’s Style Books – If you work with a publisher, the company might have its own in-house style guide. (Usually called “house style.”) This often starts with one of the bigger guides as a base and makes consistency calls about smaller things like font usage, trademarks, capitalization, paragraph indents, spacing, and folio formatting, just to name a few. For instance, when I signed on with a small press, I received a document titled, “How We Do Things Here,” outlining the publishers’ preferences. It was a handy reference, eliminated a lot of questions, and gave their publications a level of consistency. And that’s the name of the game, when it comes down to it.

Do you have a style guide preference? Have you ever injured yourself with a print copy of the Chicago Manual of Style?

Author: Laurie Boris

Laurie Boris is a freelance writer, editor, proofreader, and former graphic designer. She has been writing fiction for over twenty-five years and is the award-winning author of four novels. She lives in New York’s lovely Hudson Valley. Learn more about Laurie at her website and her Amazon author page.

13 thoughts on “Style Guides: Which Ones, Why Bother?”

  1. Good post. Good info, Laurie.
    I use the “Chicago Manual of Style.” Always on my desk.
    For a time when anyone asked, “What are you reading?” the answer was, “Chicago.”
    Like you, I prefer a hard-copy for my references. I got the 14th edition for $12 at Amazon. I checked today and there are copies available(used) at similar prices, if anyone is interested.
    P.S. There are at least two instances in this comment where I should have referred to my Chicago.

  2. I have the 14th edition of Chicago (have had it for a number of years), also have the AP book as a website I used to write for required it.

  3. You nailed it, Laurie: Consistency, clarity, and communication; intentional choices, not errors. Believe it or not, rules for grammar and punctuation haven’t changed much. Maybe we leave out unnecessary commas after words like “too,” but it’s no excuse to omit all the commas.

    As writers, we must take creativity into the equation and determine how we want our sentences to read and sound. To be honest, I avoid style manuals. I prefer books such as The Only Grammar Book You’ll Ever Need (Thurman/Shea) and the updated version of Getting the Words Right by Theodore Cheney. For on-the-spot help, I rely on “Grammar Girl,” one of my favorite sites.

    I confess: I took a brush-up course in grammar and punctuation. I had to.

  4. Thank you, I needed this. I teach Modern Language Association (MLA) style as an English professor (APA is for academic writing in the social sciences, with Chicago for history and art). But MLA is not the style of book publishing and following it gets me into trouble. (And I’m really confused when it comes to my blog!) Back in the days that I was an editor at Prentice Hall, we had an in-house style book — and that was free, which I appreciate a lot more now.

  5. Great post, Laurie. I didn’t realise there were so many style guides.

    I have a print copy of Style manual 6th edition 2002 (so it’s old). That’s the only title and it has the Australian emblem on the cover. It was published by John Wiley & Sons Australia, Ltd and revised by Snooks and Co. Someone would have suggested it along the way but I have no idea who that was.

  6. I splurged on a dead-tree version of CMoS last year.

    I, too, had the AP style guide beaten into me in college — both print *and* broadcast. (The version for broadcasting makes no mention at all of column inches. 😉 ). Back when Borders still existed, I would sometimes find outdated copies of the AP style guide on the remainder tables and wonder why. I learned later that a lot of technical editors use it.

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