Writing In Style

Should you be using the Chicago Manual of Style, AP Stylebook, MLA Handbook or something else as your writing bible? It all depends.

I’m going to shock the English teachers among you: Most professional writers do not follow the style prescribed by the Modern Language Association of America. Joseph Gibaldi’s MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers is the bible to high school and college English instructors alike. I use MLA only when I teach composition. Otherwise, I use the following:

  • The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law (AP) for much of my freelance business
  • The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA) for my consulting clients
  • U.S. Government Printing Office Style Manual (GPO) for my engineering clients
  • American Medical Association Manual of Style (AMA, not to be confused with the guide published by the American Management Association) for health and medical writing.

And of course, for those who are writing books, there’s The Chicago Manual of Style: The Essential Guide for Writers, Editors, and Publishers (University of Chicago).

How do you pick?

The type of writing you do determines which stylebook you should use. Most newspapers and magazines (including WD) follow AP at least to some degree, although internal style (house style, as it’s called) generally supersedes AP. I’ll admit to a personal bias toward AP; years ago, I left my corporate job, severance check in hand, and within minutes had bought an AP stylebook. Beyond guiding me in a new style of writing, it was also my statement to the world that I was now a Writer with a capital “W.” (And yes, style guides disagree on how to use a letter as a letter.)

Besides being the arbitrator for spelling, punctuation and other style issues, each stylebook reflects the needs of the writers who use it. Chicago includes major sections on bookmaking and production; MLA places most of its emphasis on how to give credit to your sources. In scientific and technical fields, “when” something was said is as important as “who” said it, and AMA style reflects that. For journalists, of course, libel is an important concern, and the AP stylebook includes a significant section on that subject. You can also tell the audience for a style guide by its table of contents (TOC). MLA has sections on research and writing, mechanics of writing, format of research papers, common abbreviations and a list of reference books in 22 fields, while Chicago’s style section has entries such as punctuation, spelling and distinctive treatment of words and names and terms. AP’s TOC is simple, with only about a half dozen categories under the stylebook section.

Why does it matter?

Big differences abound once you get inside these stylebooks. The chart below shows some basic differences among a few of the guides.

Will a magazine reject or send an article back because you spelled out vs. abbreviated all state names? Probably not. Will an agent or editor refuse to represent you or publish your novel because you used numerals rather than written numbers? Probably not. But using the generally accepted stylebook for the type of writing you do shows you’re a professional, someone to be taken seriously.

Can’t find a rule for a style issue?

I recommend the GPO manual’s view. Although the original context specifically addresses bibliographies, the sentiment speaks volumes: “Consistency is more important in bibliographic style than the style itself.” Bravo.

Don’t let conflicts between the stylebooks (and we won’t even get into the differences in dictionaries) daunt you. Follow the one most often used for your type of work, and keep writing.


These tips came from the course Essentials of Business Writing

Does you career depend on your ability to write? It could! Nearly every profession requires you to have strong, effective writing skills. Through this workshop, you’ll develop skills to write over a dozen types of formal documents including: memos, letters, email, goodwill messages, news releases, reports, proposals, collection letters, grant applications, and sales and fundraising letters. You can also write better with collaborative groups.

You will learn:

  • How to overcome mental blocks, especially those due to fear and anxiety
  • How to avoid common mistakes of punctuation, grammar and usage
  • How to present ideas logically and persuasively
  • How to write with a group, and to edit the writing of others to have a common voice
  • The most up-to-date rules of layout and design
  • The writing, review and editing process

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