How to Choose a Style Guide
10 Questions to Help You Decide
Tina M. Kister
April 27, 2016
Style guides help ensure consistency, save time, clarify expectations, and help to create and shape organizational knowledge and culture. By designating a well-established style guide as the foundation for all of your content, you can leverage the combined knowledge of experts who have been working for decades to facilitate clear, consistent writing.
Every organization produces content. While some companies intentionally produce customer-facing content, all companies produce both external and internal content. External content includes advertisements, proposals, web copy, press releases, user manuals, and more. Internal content includes employee handbooks, new-hire orientation materials, training presentations, developer-facing documents, project-management documents, and financial reports. Internal content even includes the emails sent from one employee to another as a part of daily business operations.
Within an organization, many people are content developers. A Human Resource specialist may develop content for an employee handbook. A Project Manager may develop content to communicate a project’s status. A Salesperson may develop content to help during a sales call. A Customer Support agent may develop content to help resolve customer issues. Even a Financial officer may develop content to report earnings and expenses.
Because most members of an organization are not information-development professionals and have expertise in other areas, it is critical that the organization provides support for content development to ensure that content is relevant, accurate, consistent, clear, useful, and re-usable when needed. In other words, the organization must support high-quality content by hiring information-development professionals to facilitate the success of all content developers.
One of the simplest and most cost-effect ways to begin managing the quality of your content is to designate one of the many existing style guides as the standard for your organization.
These existing and well-established style guides include:
- Scientific Style and Format: the CSE Manual for Authors, Editors, and Publishers (Published by the Council of Science Editors)
- AMA Manual of Style: A Guide for Authors and Editors (published by the American Medical Association)
- U.S. Government Printing Office Style Manual
- Microsoft Manual of Style
- The IBM Style Guide: Conventions for Writers and Editors
- Franklin Covey Style Guide for Business and Technical Communication
- Many others
For this article, I will be taking a closer look at the following four style guides:
The well-known style guides are published by universities, professional organizations, and private companies. Each style guide has emerged from a particular field, with particular media and audiences in mind. When choosing a style guide, it is important to ask several questions to make sure that the style recommendations are appropriate to your organization and industry, to make sure that the style guide is accessible and usable by members of your organization, and to make sure that the recommendations are appropriate for your content, audience, and media.
When choosing a style guide, it can be helpful to ask the following questions:
What are the origins of the style guide?
The origins of the style guide provide the basis for the style recommendations. Taking a closer look at the origins of a style guide can reveal what motivates the publishers and informs specific style recommendations.
CMOS is published by Chicago Press, which was established in 1890 as a division of the University of Chicago. Chicago Press's mission is to "...disseminate scholarship of the highest standard and to publish serious works that promote education, foster public understanding, and enrich cultural life."
Chicago Press is also committed to publishing outside of scholarly circles. "...the Press presents innovative scholarship in ways that inform and engage general readers... We publish significant non-scholarly work by writers, artists, and intellectuals from within and beyond the academy."
APA is published by the American Psychological Association, whose mission is "...to advance the creation, communication and application of psychological knowledge to benefit society and improve people's lives."
APA has a clearly stated focus on both scholarly work and on the field of psychology. According to the Preface, it is "...an authoritative source on all aspects of scholarly writing..." "The rules of APA Style are drawn from an extensive body of psychological literature, from editors and authors experienced in scholarly writing, and from recognized authorities on publication practices."
MLA is published by the Modern Language Association, which is focused on "...the teaching of language and literature."
Like the American Psychological Association, the Modern Language Association is clearly focused on "the academy." "...the Modern Language Association of America provides opportunities for its members to share their scholarly findings and teaching experiences with colleagues and to discuss trends in the academy."
AP is published by the Associated Press, and is rooted in journalism and news reporting. The Associated Press is committed to "...providing high-quality, informed reporting of everything from wars and elections to championship games and royal weddings."
Comparing the origins of style guides can reveal the priorities of the publishers – priorities that influence specific style recommendations.
In general, scientific and academic publications are not renown for being easy to understand – scientific writing often uses passive voice; long, convoluted sentences; and language that is recognizable only to experts in a specific field. If your audience consists of people who have advanced knowledge in a subject area and are accustomed to the verbosity of most scientific writing, then this style may be appropriate.
News-writing conventions are often a reflection of the limited space and pressing deadlines that characterize print journalism. For example, AP style standardizes the use of many abbreviations and discourages use of the serial comma. While these might be valuable recommendations when space is limited, it can also lead to ambiguous writing. It's also interesting that, while news-gathering and timeliness are mentioned several times on the Associated Press website, there is no mention of writing or communication.
How often is the style guide updated?
Language is dynamic and ever-changing. With the increase in online communications and globalization, language is more fluid than ever before. When writing about current affairs, cutting-edge technology, and other timely issues, it is important to refer to a style guide that reflects current usage.
When a style guide is updated infrequently, it can lead to the use of terms and writing conventions that may seem outdated to your users, which could negatively effect your credibility.strongly rooted in journalism, and it’s conventions are often a reflection of the limited space and pressing deadlines that characterize print journalism. For example, AP style standardizes the use of many abbreviations and discourages use of the serial comma. While these might be valuable recommendations when space is limited, it can also lead to ambiguous writing.
The current (sixteenth) edition was published in 2010, the fifteenth edition was published in 2007, and the fourteenth edition was published in 1993.
The current (sixth) edition was published in 2009, the fifth edition was published in 2007, and the fourth edition was published in 1994.
The current (eighth) edition was published in 2016, the seventh edition was published in 2009, the sixth edition was published in 2003.
The spiral-bound version is updated annually, and the hardcover version is updated every other year.
Who influences how the style guide is updated?
It is important that, when a style guide is updated and revised, the recommendations reflect conventions that are appropriate to your users, media, and subject. These recommendations are made by people – people with specific opinions, experiences, and preferences. Do these people provide input that is appropriate for your content, audience, etc.?
CMOS states in the Preface that it has incorporated user feedback from it’s online Q&A page into each edition, and refers users to standard dictionaries for current word usage.
APA states in the Introduction, “The rules of APA Style are drawn from an extensive body of psychological literature, from editors and authors experienced in scholarly writing, and from recognized authorities on publication practices.”
MLA states in the Preface that the current edition is based at least partly on “…the advice of instructors, librarians, and scholars…”
AP states in the Foreword that "Contributions come from the AP staff, AP's member news organizations and subscribers, journalism teachers and students, specialists in a host of fields and everyday readers. Indeed, some of the most talked-about changes have come at the suggestions of @APStylebook's Twitter followers."
Does the style guide provide the reasoning behind style recommendations, so that the it can be adapted to unusual situations?
Because language is dynamic, and because there is no absolute right or wrong that exists outside of agreed-upon conventions, you will encounter situations that are not explicitly covered by a style guide. In these cases, if the style guide provides the general reasoning behind style recommendations, then they can be adapted to meet your needs.
CMOS, for example, has a section called The Trend Toward Closed Compounds, in which it explains that, “With frequent use, open or hyphenated compounds tend to become closed (on line to on-line to online). Chicago's general adherence to Webster's does not preclude occasional exceptions when the closed spellings have become widely preferred by writers (e.g., website) and pronunciation and readability are not at stake.”
This sort of explanation gives you the freedom to adapt your guidelines to your specific content without having to wait for the next edition of the style guide. Different industries and fields evolve at different rates, and such an explanation gives you the basis for consistency and credibility, while still allowing you to adapt.
Are the citations clear, complete, and easy to use?
Many style guides originated from a desire to ensure consistency and understandability in academic research. One key to this is providing readers with the ability to access, verify, and follow up on primary resources through citations. Therefore, assessing the quality of the citations in terms of your audience, industry, and goals is one concrete way to assess the appropriateness of a style guide. Even if citations are not a core feature of the content you produce, the citation recommendations can exemplify a style guide’s overall recommendations.
Minow, Newton N., and Craig L. LaMay. Inside the Presidential Debates: Their Improbable Past and Promising Future. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008. [url].
Minow, Newton N., and Craig L. LaMay. Inside the presidential debates: Their improbable past and promising future. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2008. Web. 20 July 2015. <[url]>.</[url]>
Minow, N. N., & LaMay, C. L. (2008). Inside the presidential debates: Their improbable past and promising future. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Retrieved from [url]
Note that both CMOS and MLA recommend using full author names, which can be invaluable when searching for primary sources. APA style, on the other hand, recommends using only initials, rather than full first and middle names.
Only MLA includes access dates, which can be another important piece of information, particularly because online sources change frequently. However, MLA style uses abbreviations for “University” and “Press,” which may cause confusion for those not familiar with the style. (While CMOS does not include access dates as part of its recommended style, it does include recommendations for including them in certain circumstances.)
Does the style guide recommend efficient content-development processes?
Some style guides include recommendations for efficient and effective content-development processes.
CMOS, for example, includes sections on different types of editing, as well as recommendations for best practices. For example, it includes a section called Communicating with Authors that includes specific recommendations for writing editorial comments, such as “Comments should be concise, and they should avoid sounding casual, pedantic, condescending, or indignant.”
By adopting a style guide with such detailed process recommendations, much of the work of an information development manager is already in place, and merely needs to be adapted to your organization’s particular audience, industry, etc.
Is the style guide comprehensive enough to provide guidance on a wide range of content and a variety of situations?
Does the style guide provide guidance outside of writing, and, if so, is the guidance relevant and appropriate? Do the supplementary sections of the style guide support your organization’s activities?
CMOS includes sections on Foreign Languages and Mathematics in Type, Quotations and Dialogue, and Production and Digital Technology, which discusses division of labor, workflow, and other processes related to creating digital content.
APA includes sections such as Protecting the Rights and Welfare of Research Participants, Editorial Process, and Reducing Bias in Language.
MLA includes a section on Plagiarism and Academic Integrity, as well as a section called Research and Writing that includes topics such as Evaluating Sources, Full-Text Databases, and The Modern Academic Library.
AP includes sections called Statement of News Values, Briefing on Media Law, Sports Guidelines and Style, Fashion Guidelines, and Religion Guidelines. It also includes a section called Photo Captions.
Is the style guide affordable and accessible?
How much does they style guide cost? Is it available online?
While the answers to these questions are important in terms of your own use, they are also important because they tell you about the priorities of the people who develop the style guide. For example, if a style guide is available online, that tells you that the publisher values the user experience, and have made an investment in making the style recommendations easily accessible. This, in turn, is likely to be reflected in the actual style recommendations.
- Print: $38.35 on (Hardcover on Amazon)
- Online: Published prices range from $35 to $1,600.
- Ebook: Not available.
- Print: $30.69 on (Hardcover on Amazon)
- Online: Not available.
- Ebook: $22.93 (Kindle)
- Print: $11.78 on (Softcover on Amazon)
- Online: Not available.
- Ebook: Not available.
- Print: $14.29 on (Softcover on Amazon)
- Online: Published prices range from $26 to $500,000.
- Ebook: $12.99 (Kindle)
In terms of affordability, there are ways to scale access based on funding. At a minimum, you can have an actual print copy of the style guide so it is available for reference.
Ideally, most content developers (that is, anyone who creates content, from an Employee Handbook to software specifications) in an organization will not be required to access the style guide directly – it is the responsibility of the information development experts to streamline processes by simplifying style recommendations, providing tools such as quick-reference guides and templates, and providing answers that are easy to understand to questions about grammar and style. It is unreasonable to expect every content developer within an organization to become a master of a specific style – after all, they were not hired as information development experts.
Are style recommendations easy to find?
Is there a comprehensive index? Are the sections organized logically?
While most style guides include a comprehensive index, some do not. As you get more familiar with a style guide, it becomes easier to find relevant style recommendations. However, it is also important to consider whether the style guide needs to be easy to use for people who refer to it only occasionally.
CMOS includes a comprehensive index and uses a consecutive, two-level numbering system (for example, 5.21. 5.22. 5.23).
APA (like CMOS) includes a comprehensive index and uses a consecutive, two-level numbering system (for example, 5.21. 5.22. 5.23).
MLA includes a comprehensive index and uses a consecutive, four-level numbering system (for example, 3.2.6a, 3.2.6b, 3.2.6c).
AP uses a table of contents, and entries within each section are alphabetized. Entries in the Stylebook section include a mix of information, including grammar, usage, and abbreviation guidelines, as well as additional factual information (such as, for example, the entry for American Bar Association, which states, “ABA is acceptable on second reference. Also: the bar association, the association. Headquarters is in Chicago.”).
The best way to determine whether a style guide is easy to use is to select both a common issue (such as the use of the serial comma) and a less common issue (such as parallel construction in lists), and go through the exercise of using the style guide to find the information you need.
Common Issue: Use of the Serial Comma
Listed in the index under commas, serial.
Listed in the index under Comma, serial.
Listed in the index under commas, before coordinating conjunctions.
Listed in the section A Guide to Punctuation, under comma, IN A SERIES.
Less Common Issue: Parallel Construction in Lists
Listed in the index under parallel structure, lists and outlines.
Listed in the index under Parallelism, in lists and table stubs.
I actually found the recommendations regarding lists and parallel structure to be lacking in all four style guides. Lists are prevalent in today’s business communications, and appear in all types of internal and external content, including PowerPoint presentations, where they tend to be over-used and poorly written.
None of the four style guides included any reference to the important convention, for example, of presenting similar information in the same order. This would be a perfect example of a writing convention to include in the smaller, customized style guide that should accompany one of the major style guides.
Are the style recommendations easy to understand and implement?
While language is dynamic and flexible, it is also important to be able to find and implement clear style recommendations quickly and efficiently. The last thing you want to do in a business environment is to spend several minutes to hours researching minutiae.
A style guide should provide clear directions concisely. While it is important to be able to adapt recommendations to unusual situations, and (as noted earlier) it is best if a style guide provides some reasoning behind recommendations, it is also critical that the style guide not over-complicate simple issues and provide a definitive answer.
To illustrate, let’s take a look at a very simple style recommendation regarding whether a single space or a double space should be used between sentences.
“Like most publishers, Chicago advises leaving a single character space, not two spaces, between sentences and after colons used within a sentence, and this recommendation applies to both the manuscript and the published work.”
“Spacing twice after punctuation marks at the end of a sentence aids readers of draft manuscripts.”
“In an earlier era, writers using a typewriter commonly left two spaces after a period, a question mark, or an exclamation point. Publications in the United States today usually have the same spacing after concluding punctuation marks as between words on the same line. Since word processors make available the same fonts used by typesetters for printed works, many writers, influenced by the look of typeset publications, now leave only one space after a concluding punctuation mark. In addition, some publishers’ guidelines for preparing a manuscript’s electronic files ask professional authors to type only the spaces that are to appear in print. Because it is increasingly common for papers and manuscripts to be prepared with a single space after all concluding punctuation marks, this spacing is shown in the examples in this handbook.
"As a practical matter, however, there is nothing wrong with using two spaces after concluding punctuation marks unless an instructor requests that you do otherwise. Whichever spacing you choose, be sure to use it consistently in all parts of your paper – the works-cited list as well as the main text. By contrast, internal punctuation marks, such as a colon, a comma, and a semicolon, should always be followed by one space.”
Note that the CMOS recommendation is simple, and clearly applies to all content. APA only offers advice regarding “draft manuscripts,” and does not make any recommendation for final published work. MLA offers a long, wordy explanation with no definitive recommendation either way. AP provides no guidance whatsoever.
Why Does it Matter?
By designating one of the well-established style guides as the foundation for all of your content, you can leverage the combined knowledge of experts who have been working for decades to facilitate clear, consistent writing.
Style guides help ensure consistency, which is the cornerstone of quality and credibility.
Style guides save time. When you have a single, authoritative resource to provide style recommendations, then you can spend your time following those recommendations, rather than having meetings, discussions, and arguments over whether a comma should go here or a semicolon should go there. A style guide will answer that question for you – and quickly – which will allow you to make a stylistic choice and move on to more important work.
Style guides also help clarify expectations. In an organizational setting, it is important that everyone is working toward the same goals, so that work is progressing toward a finished product. When peoples’ understanding of what is “correct” and “incorrect” is different, they will – with the best intentions – undo one another’s work, setting the entire project back, rather than moving it forward.
Style guides help create and shape organizational knowledge and culture beyond the style guide itself. When an organization designates a primary style guide as the foundation for quality content, it communicates to both paying customers and employees that you are an organization that cares about excellence, values the customer experience, and actively empowers your employees to succeed.
Implementing a Style Guide
When implementing a style guide within your organization, it is best to take a supportive, rather than authoritative, approach.
Remember that a style guide is a resource to be used to facilitate other activities – it is not your company’s primary product or focus. Style guides provide a foundation for making well-reasoned choices to ensure quality, consistency, and a positive user experience.
If a style guide is implemented as a mandatory regulatory document, it is likely to be rejected, and (rightly) viewed as an impediment to efficiency. However, if a style guide is offered as a resource for those seeking to produce excellent work, it provides a solid foundation for collaboration and refinement.
Most people care about the quality of their work and, if you give them tools that help them do better work, they will use them. As the style conventions become an integral part of your organization’s culture, awareness will grow, and the conventions will be more widely understood and implemented. When your information development process has matured to the point where you are able to provide governance and editorial assistance, then the style recommendations can be more strictly enforced.
Because the style guide should enable employees to create higher-quality work more efficiently, it is best to also create an abbreviated and customized version that employees can refer to very quickly to resolve the most common questions. The custom style guide can focus on exceptions, problem areas, areas not covered, and specialized areas. Such areas may include images, video, instructional content, micro copy, subtitles, user interfaces, web design, and more. Refer users to the foundational style guide for more complex issues.
Note that, when using more than one style guide, be sure to make the order of priority clear.
- Associated Press. Help Center. How Often is the AP Stylebook Updated? https://www.apstylebook.com/?do=help&q=118. Accessed May 4, 2016.
- Associated Press. About Us. http://www.ap.org/company/about-us. Accessed May 4, 2016.
- American Psychological Association. Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. 6th ed. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2009.
- American Psychological Association. About APA. http://www.apa.org/about/. Accessed May 4, 2016.
- American Psychological Association. Help Center. How Often is the AP Stylebook Updated? https://www.apstylebook.com/?do=help&q=118. Accessed May 4, 2016.
- Minthorn, David, Sally Jacobsen, and Paula Froke, eds., The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law 2015. New York: The Associated Press, 2015.
- The Modern Language Association of America. MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. 7th ed. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 2009.
- Modern Language Association. About the MLA. https://www.mla.org/About-Us/About-the-MLA. Accessed May 4, 2016.
- University of Chicago Press. The Chicago Manual of Style: The Essential Guide for Writers, Editors, and Publishers. 16th ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.
- University of Chicago Press. About the Press. http://press.uchicago.edu/press/about.html. Accessed May 4, 2016.