Writers don’t typically need a lot of tools for their craft. A laptop. Perhaps a journal and a favorite pen for capturing thoughts on the go. Unlimited quantities of coffee or tea.
But for those individuals who produce a higher volume of content—serial authors, publishers, content marketers, curriculum developers, and anyone else who regularly creates with words as part of their job—one tool becomes indispensable: the style guide.
Style guides are a critical element to help content producers keep their writing consistent and facilitate easier collaboration on documents. They provide guidance on everything from capitalization and punctuation to correct citation formats and use of numbers.
Many style guides are available to writers, and they offer different levels of ease of use, online access, and cost, as well as their own unique set of rules. For organizations publishing regular content, it’s also a good idea to create your own in-house style guide to complement your established style guide of choice.
But first you must decide which style guide is right for you.Style guides are a critical element to help content producers keep their writing consistent and facilitate easier collaboration on documents. Click To Tweet
Which Style Guide Should I Use?
Which style guide you should use depends on what you or your organization will use it for. The four main style guides to choose from are Chicago, AP, APA, and MLA. They have some similarities and some major differences in writing style, accessibility, and frequency of updates. By the end of this article, you should have the information you need to decide which style guide works best for you.
Chicago Manual of Style
At a glance: The most comprehensive of the major style guides, The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) is used in the publishing industry as well as in general business writing and the humanities (literature, history, and the arts). Non-news blogs most often use Chicago style, and updates to the manual occur every several years. Chicago has a moderate subscription cost and offers good online accessibility.
History: The first edition of CMOS was published in 1906 by the University of Chicago Press, and simultaneous publication of the online and print versions first occurred in 2010. CMOS heavily influenced Kate Turabian’s A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations. Chicago style was last updated in September 2017, with the release of its seventeenth edition.
A bit more info: Chicago has individual and group prices for online subscriptions, starting at $39 per year for a single subscription. Discounts are offered for group subscriptions and for bundling an online subscription with a hard copy. An online My Manual function allows you to create bookmarks, notes, and style sheets that can be shared with team members within the online version of the guide. Their monthly Style Q&A is also a popular feature.
As mentioned, Chicago is extremely comprehensive, more so than other popular style guides. If you are looking for a specific rule about a certain situation, odds are Chicago will cover it. It is in favor of the Oxford comma and spelling out numbers fewer than 99 and at the start of a sentence. Chicago recommends putting titles for shorter works in quotes and those for longer works in italics.
At a glance: The Associated Press Stylebook is straightforward and most frequently used in news reporting. It’s often the guide of choice for news-related blogs, newsletters, and news articles; organizations and independent authors also sometimes use AP style. The Associated Press updates the stylebook every year. AP offers great online accessibility with moderate subscription costs.
History: The Associated Press formed in 1846 and maintained a style guide for news reporters. In 1953, the AP put out a stylebook for public use. A mobile app for iPhone users was released in 2009.
A bit more info: The AP has online subscription rates for groups and individuals, ranging from $26 for one person to $870 for 50 members (larger packages also available). They offer discounts for members of AP member news organizations and for an auto-renewal option.
The AP has great online tools, such as AP-style quizzes and AP-style plug-ins to check documents, social media, and email. The AP is streamlined, modern, and well organized, with alphabetized organization and dedicated sections for topics such as fashion, sports, business, food, and many more.
The stylebook updates every summer, with new technological and cultural terms constantly added to keep users up-to-date. AP style is against the Oxford comma except when necessary for clarity, is in favor of spelling out numbers below ten, and encourages quotation marks around titles. Less comprehensive than Chicago, AP emphasizes spelling and word usage and is silent on many of the grammar issues covered by Chicago.
At a glance: The American Psychological Association style manual is mainly used in academic writing, research, and science writing. APA style is updated infrequently (it’s only on its sixth edition since 1952), has good online availability, and offers a variety of free online tools for students, educators, researchers, and librarians.
History: The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association began as a writer’s guide published in the Psychological Bulletin in 1929. The first manual available to the public was published in 1952.
A bit more info: APA Style Central offers students, educators, researchers, and librarians a trove of learning and teaching tools, including quizzes as well as word processing technology that corrects and points out errors in academic writing as you go. The tools are only available if you belong to an institution that licenses APA Style Central. APA Style is in favor of the Oxford comma and spelling out numbers below ten; it recommends underlining or italicizing book titles and putting quotation marks around article titles.
Because of its use in science and technical writing, APA has substantial sections on displaying results and crediting sources, but it lacks Chicago’s comprehensive coverage of grammar matters.
The MLA Handbook
At a glance: The MLA Handbook is mostly used in humanities-related academic writing (history, literature, college essays, etc.). The guide is simple and easy to understand. MLA is updated infrequently (it’s only on its eighth edition since 1951), and it has decent online availability and no subscription costs.
History: The Modern Language Association of America was founded in 1883 as an advocacy group for the study of literature and modern languages. The MLA style guide was first published for widespread use in 1951.
A bit more info: Style.mla.org offers all the information students and educators need, including advice on formatting, a form for asking the MLA editors questions, sample essays, teaching resources, and more. The website mla.hcommons.org offers a “scholarly network for MLA members,” with language and literature discussion groups. The MLA stylebook is mostly citation related and academic. It is in favor of the Oxford comma as well as spelling out numbers that are one or two words (two hundred, thirty-four), and using numerals for the rest (354, 1003). MLA recommends italicizing book titles and putting article titles in quotes.
Many alternate style guides are available, including style guides useful for writing content for other English-speaking countries, such as the style guide for the Oxford University Press. Other fields and organizations offer niche-related, domestic alternative style guides, including the following:
- U.S. Government Publishing Office Style Manual
- Microsoft Manual of Style
- AMA Manual of Style: A Guide for Authors and Editors
- The IBM Style Guide: Conventions for Writers and Editors
- Scientific Style and Format: The CSE Manual for Authors, Editors, and Publishers
It may be useful to check for guides widely used in your industry.
The Value of an In-House Style Guide
If your organization employs multiple content producers, you need company-wide consistency for details related to your specific work. For instance, if you are a curriculum company, you’ll want to make sure all your writers use the same spelling for the plural of tornado or know whether a period should be used for unit of measurement abbreviations. For specific standards like these, you’ll want to create your own in-house style guide.
A good place to start is anywhere your organization’s preferences diverge from your chosen guide. Do you like to use numerals for double-digit numbers, even though you prefer Chicago? Add that to your in-house guide. As you develop your list, add spelling and capitalization choices for names of your products, font and formatting preferences, and other linguistic preferences your entire team should know and practice.If your organization employs multiple content producers, you need an in-house style guide to ensure company-wide consistency in your published work. Click To Tweet
Creating a style guide from scratch is a lot of work, but it increases professionalism and simplifies collaboration. Professional editors such as those available from the Scribe Source can work with you to develop the perfect in-house style guide for your needs.
Need help creating a style guide for your organization? Drop us a note!
About the Author
Zachary Wolfe Martin has a master’s degree in creative writing and an eye for consistency, making him an adept writer and editor for many of the Scribe Source’s projects. Zach is skilled in capturing the right voice for a project, whether it be for a company’s marketing materials or a children’s book character. He joined the Scribe team in 2017.