What style guide should I use?

style guide and reference book bookshelf

Style guides are used by publishing companies to help them define the rules of language they’ll follow for their publications. While authors may not need intimate knowledge of one, understanding the purpose of each and maybe even learning a couple of rules to improve consistency in your writing is a great idea. Figuring out what style guide to use is pretty simple, and we’ll overview what factors you should consider below.

What style guide(s) should I know?

Style guides are purpose-built. If you’re working in fiction, you likely wouldn’t use an academic one; rather, you’d be predisposed to something that intimately handles trade publishing. These guides are updated regularly, usually every year, to match the constantly changing language landscape. In addition to the rules of language, style guides often tell you what dictionary they prefer so you can match your spelling to those as well. While this might seem like a finicky preference point, it prevents debates over spelling and usage.

And, if you don’t like some of the rules in your style guide, you can always add an exception to your style sheet!

Whether you’re just recording the style you adhered to (most often) in your style sheet or looking to match a particular publishing house’s requirements to pitch a more polished product, you’ll be happy to know that style guides are easy to come by. You can access most major guides online, find them in the library, or invest and buy your own copy.

Trade publishing style guides:

When you think of pleasure reading, you’re likely thinking of a product that came from trade publishing. For the purpose of simplicity, we’ll include self-publishing and general publishing under the trade publishing umbrella.

Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS)

The mainstay of the trade publishing industry, CMOS is my first suggestion to most clients. Not only does it cover most grammar questions (new) authors have, it also overviews things like how to handle text messages in novels. If you’re not sure how you should write something, CMOS likely has an opinion on it.

Particularly relevant for the following genres:

  • Sci-fi and fantasy
  • Romance
  • Biographies, including autobiographies, and memoirs
  • Historical, fiction and non-fiction (not including textbooks)

I should mention that Chicago is also the basis for many other style guides—even academic ones. APA, for example, guides its users to CMOS when they have broader or more general questions about style.

Dictionary of choice: Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, as an abridged version)

Associated Press (AP Stylebook)

A clue in the name, AP is widely used in pressrooms by journalists and their editors. It’s also frequently used in the business world (think self-help business or marketing books). School programs that cater to journalism and media often employ AP, as well, so this is a pretty commonly used style guide.

Dictionary of choice: Webster’s New World College Dictionary

Canadian Press (CP)

Welcome to Canada. As the definitive resource on language style for the Canadian Press (our national news), our journalists follow this over AP in most instances. Aside from journalists, communication and public relation professionals also follow CP’s standards.

My favourite part of CP is its dedication to fairness and inclusivity. However, I suggest supplementing it with Elements of Indigenous Style to strengthen your coverage of Canadian news. It’s also useful for anyone writing about Canada’s Indigenous populations who wants to be respectful and authentic to the nuances of that landscape.

Dictionary of choice: Canadian Oxford English Dictionary

Academic style guides:

This covers guidelines for writing a textbook or submitting a paper to school. Teachers, students, and academic editors work with these style guides most often.

Modern Language Association (MLA)

If you’ve gotten a bachelor of arts, you’re familiar with MLA. Whether you’re conferring with your Little, Brown Handbook or using MLA Style online, this style guide is intended to help students and teachers source academic material quickly and effectively.

Dictionary of choice: Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary

American Psychological Association (APA)

Humanities use MLA, social sciences use APA. Perhaps not a hard-and-fast rule, but it is generally accurate. Aside from psychology, programs in nursing, business, engineering, and even communications can use APA for citation and language guidance. Helps with journal submissions as well as academic papers.

Dictionary of choice: Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary

Scientific Style and Format (SSF)

As you can likely tell from the title, this is for the sciences. It is revised by the Council of Science Editors, and encourages Chicago style. Great for usage and citations.

Dictionary of choice: Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, as an abridged version)

Turabian

This style guide relies heavily on Chicago, but is intended to provide extra help on the academic side in research, clear and concise writing, and citations.

Dictionary of choice: Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, as an abridged version)

American Medical Association (AMA) Manual of Style

Used in the medical and scientific fields, AMA Manual of Style guides academic writers and editors through journal submissions and publishing aesthetics. It is a carefully-considered resource for researchers to rely on from beginning to end of the writing process.

Dictionary of choice: Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, as an abridged version)

These are the major and established style guides, though there are plenty of others that specialize even further or are used for specific niches. And, funnily enough, this list doesn’t include house style—which is essentially an expanded style sheet that is used just for the publication. For example, a publishing company may follow CMOS generally, but have a house style which requires spelling out numbers greater than 10 and no Oxford comma. It’s all down to preferences and consistency. Style guides (and style sheets!) just help people working on a book make better and more informed decisions… even the author.

If you’re unsure which style guide you’ll use most frequently, it’s a good idea to research your favourite publishing houses and agents to see their preferences. That’ll give you an idea of where to start.

The good news is that you, as an author, don’t actually need to know every style guide inside and out. If you decide to pick one up to strengthen your writing or because you want an edge on your submission competition, you now have a better idea what one will best suit your genre and market.

Don’t see your style guide listed? Let me know if you think it should be on this page!

Published by M Gardner

Editor and writing coach. I'm keen on helping establish and grow unique authorial voices for maximum impact in the reading world.

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