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Use Style Guides

Why Do We Use Style Guides?

Apr 11, 2013 - Posted to  Writing in General
We've all had the experience of struggling with style guides. You spent hours working on a paper-your analysis is logical and well-written, and you've painstakingly put together a list of every resource you consulted-but then, just when you think you're done, you have to go back and change the formatting. Maybe your citations right or your title page has the wrong spacing. Whatever kind of paper you're working on, it can be pretty annoying to have to worry about these kinds of details. So why do we bother?

What's a Style Guide?

Some rules of writing are set in stone. For example, you can't splice together two independent clauses with a comma, and verbs always need to be conjugated in the proper tense. But many of the choices we make when we write, from punctuation to word choice to how we write numbers, aren't governed by a strict set of rules. Often there's more than one way to punctuate a sentence or use italics, and when that's the case writers need help deciding what to do. Style guides provide writers with answers to these types of questions and fill in the holes left by grammar books.
Another set of issues that doesn't necessarily have textbook-correct answers is formatting, i.e., how you set up the spacing, margins, and headings in a paper or article. After all, every teacher and every publication is different, and every teacher and publication is going to have their own preference about how papers should be formatting. Style guides codify those rules and set strict guidelines for writers.

Who Writes Style Guides?

The most-used style guides are those published by professional organizations. Groups like the American Psychological Association (APA), the Modern Languages Association (MLA), and the American Chemical Society (ACS) all publish style guides designed to be used in their respective fields (psychology, English, and chemistry). Other style guides are put out by publishing houses or writing groups. For example, the widely used Chicago Manual of Style started as the style guide for the University of Chicago Press, and the Associated Press (AP), a newsgathering organization, publishes its own style guide which is widely used among journalists.
If you're a student it's likely that you'll be using one of the guides listed above, or another one published by the professional organization that governs your field. If you're looking to get published, you'll probably find that the publications you submit to will also use these guides, although many publications have their own in-house style guides.

What's in a Style Guide?

The issues covered in a style guide will vary and often depend on the specific field that guide is intended for. For example, the APA has a whole set of guidelines that cover how to remove biased language (e.g., how to properly refer to the disabled or to specific ethnic groups), and rules for formatting equations, formulas, and proofs can be found in the ACS guide.
Most guides, however, will also cover many of the same issues, including punctuation, spelling, and how to deal with numbers and foreign languages. Since there's no "right" answer for most of these questions, every style guide will have its own set of rules.
Of course, the reason most students are familiar with style guides is because of references. Style guides designed to be used for academic writing will have very specific instructions for how to format both in-text citations and the bibliography. Everything from journal articles to websites to dictionaries will be covered, and dealing with the minutia of these citations is often one of the more annoying parts of academic writing.

Why Do We Use Style Guides?

Why, then, do we bother with style guides? Does it really matter if only some people use the Oxford comma or if we spell out the numbers at the beginning of a sentence? The short answer is that yes, it does matter. To the people publishing and reading professional journals and other publications, having a formal style makes everyone's job easier. Think about how hard it would be to read an online newspaper or book that switched between fonts or spaced all the paragraphs differently. Issues like this draw the reader's attention and will distract them from the content of the work.
Your teacher likely has the same concerns-he or she doesn't want to have to read dozens of papers that have different citation systems or strange margins. If your teacher is having to spend time trying to figure out if your paper is the correct length or hunting for page numbers, they're not going to be able to focus on the content of your work, and your grade will suffer.

Which Style Guide Should I Use?

Which style guide you use will depend on who you're writing for. If you're writing for a class, it's likely that the teacher will assign a specific style guide for students to use. When there's no clear direction, you should choose the style guide used most commonly in your field:
  • Biology - The CSE Manual for Authors, Editors, and Publishers (published by the Council of Science Editors)
  • Business - The AMA Style Guide for Business Writing (published by the American Management Association)
  • Chemistry - The ACS Style Guide: Effective Communication of Scientific Information (published by the American Chemical Society)
  • Engineering - IEEE Editorial Style Manual (published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers)
  • English and other humanities - MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers (published by the Modern Language Association)
  • History - The Chicago Manual of Style (published by the University of Chicago)
  • Journalism - Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law (published by the Associated Press)
  • Linguistics - Language Style Sheet (published by the Linguistic Society of America)
  • Math - AMA Author Handbook (published by the American Mathematical Society)
  • Medicine - AMA Manual of Style (published by the American Medical Association)
  • Physics - Style Manual: Instructions to Authors and Volume Editors for the Preparation of AIP Book Manuscripts (published by the American Institute of Physics)
  • Political science - APSA Style Manual for Political Science (published by the American Political Science Association)
  • Psychology and other social sciences - Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (published by the American Psychological Association)
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