Writing with Style: A Quick Intro into Three Style Manuals

Most of us learned grammar, spelling, and punctuation in school.  Vocabulary and verb conjugation were drilled into our heads by middle-aged schoolmarms. Mine was Mrs. Nielsen.  She taught me the basics of writing and sentence structure deploying it with an iron fist and mediocre literature. (I had to read Stephen King in my senior year, but that is a topic of another blog post.) While she taught me how to write, she did not teach me how to write with style.

Writing with style is much more than language’s correct usage, and I am not referring to about the arty writing that is taught when you go for your MFA.  Style is about establishing consistency and standards to let your prose shine. I learned this from Bita, a professor who taught proofreading and copyediting at George Washington University. In the 1990s if you were an editor in the Washington, DC, area, you likely had taken this class.   Bita enforced style in her class.

According to Wikipedia, a style manual is a “set of standards for the writing and design of documents, either for general use or for a specific publication, organization or field.”  In other words, a style guide is a reference to make writing elements such as tone, abbreviations, structure, etc., consistent.  While these items sound small, they are essential when writing and/or editing for a publication.

There are three main (Bita-approved) guides used today:

Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS), published by the University of Chicago Press, is the bible of book publishing.  CMOS provides a plethora of information from abbreviations, citations, punctuation and much more.  It also provides a primer on book/e-book production and a guide to proofreader marks.

AP Stylebook, published by the Associated Press, is the definitive resource for journalists.  It is the standard for most US newspapers and provides fundamental guidance for punctuation, language, usage and journalistic style.  You can also find in it a primer on media law.

US GPO Style Manual, published by the US Government Printing Office, is one of the oldest style guides and the one only empowered by an act of Congress.  The US GPO Style Manual is a useful reference for those inside-the-beltway writers and editors as it gives useful insights into the federal government, and the federal government is one of the largest information publisher in the country.

Specific industries also have their own style guides.  For example, the medical field typically uses AMA Manual of Style; psychology, APA Style Manual; and legal, The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation.  And, some publications such as The New York Times and Wall Street Journal have their own style manuals.

As a writer/editor, it is always good to know the basics of these top three style guides and how they differ from each other.  Remember, no one knows every nuance of these manuals (not even Bita).  But understanding their fundamentals is essential as you grow your career as a writer/editor.



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