The Ultimate Guide To Style Manuals: What Do They All Mean?

By Catherine Foster

A writer and editor must work in tandem to produce a high quality and error-free document. But what is considered an error? Sometimes it’s very clear: a misspelling or a comma out of place constitutes a mistake that can be fixed by either party at any stage in the editing process. However, some rules are more ambiguous. Should italics or quotations be used when denoting a title? Is it proper to use a numeral when referring to age or is it better to spell it out? Oxford comma: yay or nay?

The answer to these questions and more can be found in the form of a style guide. A style guide is the list of rules for a particular writing discipline. For example, when there is ambiguity in grammar (mostly in punctuation for citations and references), the style guide seeks to provide a standard set of rules for one area of writing. This guide is essential when one is seeking to submit a document for publication. The style guide that a journalist might use when attempting to submit to The New York Times is vastly different from what a doctor might need when publishing in The New England Journal of Medicine, for example. Understanding the subtle differences in each style guide is crucial and could mean the difference between acceptance and rejection—regardless of the content of the manuscript itself. While a full distinction of the guides is beyond the scope of this post, below are a list of the major style guides (in the US) and their respective disciplines:

AMA Style for medicine

APA and ASA Style for social sciences

AP Style for journalism

Bluebook Style for law

CSE Style for physical sciences

ACS Style for chemistry

USGPO and AGPS Style for government publications

Oxford and Chicago Style for academic publishing

MLA Style for academics, literature and humanities

House Style This is a blanket term referring to a publisher’s individual and unique set of rules for formatting or punctuation

While a writer isn’t typically expected to know all the rules of these style guides by heart (and there are many more individual resources within each discipline that exist to help clarify), they are expected to adhere to the guide of the discipline that they are submitting to. House styles within even the literary community can vary widely, so a savvy author will take a moment to check the style guide and either adjust accordingly before submission or employ the services of a knowledgeable editor. Preparation is the key to publication! Knowing the difference to different style guides is half the battle. Good luck and happy writing and editing!

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