What is your style guide? Armani? American Eagle? Ralph Lauren?
Maybe when it comes to your fashion choices, but when writing for publication, business, or academic purposes, you need a set of guiding standards to ensure that your important work is presented in a consistent way, so that your reader can focus on your crucial message and is not distracted by the fact that “New York Times” appears within quotation marks on page 4 and in italics as New York Times on page 120. (Are you referring to two different publications, the reader may ask herself?) If you cite (Brown 2001, 120) on page 45 and (Brown, 66) on page 56, is it the same reference? And minor variations like “the United States Government” in one place and “the US government” in another will simply irritate your reader.
A style guide provides a standard set of rules on usage in order to maintain consistency and aid reading comprehension.
What Is “Style,” When It Comes to Writing, Editing, and Publishing?
Of course your writing “style” may refer to your chosen tone, level of writing, or sentence structure. However, for our purposes here, “style” refers to consistency in grammar and syntax usage, and “rules related to capitalization, spelling, hyphenation, and abbreviations; punctuation, including ellipsis points, parentheses, and quotation marks; and the way numbers are treated” (Chicago Manual of Style, 17th ed., 2.49). The way you handle your sources and citations, both in notes and in a bibliography, is determined by a set “style.”
(Did you notice that my subheadings, above and below, are capitalized headline-style and not sentence-style? That is because my preferred style guide, Chicago Manual [2.18], tells me so.)
Why Is Style Important for Your Writing?
Look at this example from Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought, where I have removed the style for words and phrases under discussion:
Why perfective? Because perfect can mean complete, not just flawless, as in perfectly useless, a perfect nuisance, and technical terms like a perfect fifth in music and a perfect square in mathematics. Perfective is thus a good term for a point of view that allows us to take in the whole event.
Now here is what was actually published:
Why “perfective”? Because perfect can mean “complete,” not just “flawless,” as in perfectly useless, a perfect nuisance, and technical terms like a perfect fifth in music and a perfect square in mathematics. “Perfective” is thus a good term for a point of view that allows us to take in the whole event. (Steven Pinker, The Stuff of Thought, 202)
Did you find that you had to reread the text in the first example in order to understand what were actually terms under discussion and what was the author’s actual discourse? The style choice of placing words under discussion and definitions within quotation marks, and exemplary terms in italics, aids in reading comprehension.
The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA) explains the importance of style as follows:
Uniform style helps us to cull articles quickly for key points and findings. Rules of style in scientific writing encourage full disclosure of essential information and allow us to dispense with minor distractions. Style helps us express the key elements of quantitative results, choose the graphic form that will best suit our analyses, report critical details of our research protocol, and describe individuals with accuracy and respect. It removes the distraction of puzzling over the correct punctuation for a reference or the proper form for numbers in text. Those elements are codified in the rules we follow for clear communication, allowing us to focus our intellectual energy on the substance of our research. (APA, 6th ed., xiii; emphasis mine)
So, as you can see, following a codified set of style rules helps you to communicate the substance and key elements of your writing clearly and accurately, so that your reader will not be distracted by minor issues of usage.
Which Style Guide Should You Use?
If you are working with a publisher, they should have their own style sheet – known as “house style” – which highlights their particular preferences for usage. In addition to their house style, most publishers will also ask their authors and editors to follow a particular style guide for all other cases that the house-style sheet does not cover. Here are three of the most frequently used style guides in academic, scholarly, and professional writing:
The Editor and the Style Guide
I admit it: I am a reference-work nerd. I love dictionaries, thesauri, grammatical texts. I create indexes. So, when I was handed CMS and told that this would be my main go-to resource as a professional editor, I was both daunted and delighted.
As I learned to navigate my way around various style guides, I realized that learning the rules and applying them to the particular context of each text that I edit reminded me of learning a foreign language – an exercise that as a trained linguist I enjoy. So, I now think of my familiarity with several style guides as knowing different “editing languages.”
The art of editing, however, comes with realizing that not all of the style rules are set in stone, so to speak. Decisions on deviations and variations must be made by the copy editor, in conjunction with the author and the publisher, according to each particular work.
That is where the individual project style sheet comes in. For every work that I copy edit, I create a style sheet for the author. Usually only two pages, it highlights style decisions made that may diverge from house style or the main style guide. Conversely, I may highlight on the style sheet style changes made that are based on house style and/or the style guide so that author will know why I have changed a usage particular to his or her own style choice.
And this is where the authority of the style guide is useful: I am able to document for the author, usually by chapter and section number (e.g., CMS 5.15), the rationale for the changes made. The author has a reference for the “why” of the change. And hopefully he or she appreciates the consistency, professionalism, and credibility that applying style brings to their text.
Putting Style Guides to Use in Your Own Work
So, remember: if you want to keep consistency in your writing style and present a polished, professional product – without unnecessary formatting distractions for your reader – keep a style guide by your side (or on your screen, online) as you review your work. If you don’t have the time or inclination to navigate the sources and impose consistent style on your work, contact me, and I would be happy to speak my "editing languages" and do it for you.
Have you ever used a style guide to inform your writing? If so, which one do you prefer and why?
I am Carla DeSantis, and welcome to my blog! I love language and words and books, and have turned this love into a business, helping others to perfect their written message.