In many aspects of life, but especially in the written word, it’s important to have a common set of rules or guidelines. These provide continuity, uniformity and clues that remove some of the burden of guesswork as something is being read.

There are layers of these rules that stack on top of each other, from rules inherent in the alphabet in use, to those that are inherent in the language in use, to those inherent in the work’s intended audience or publication. For example:

  • The alphabet in use will tend to have rules about letter formation and order.
  • The language in use will tend to have rules like the directional flow of text, punctuation usage and spelling.
  • The intended audience will tend to have rules like how terms are used, which specific terms are appropriate, and even how long a work should be.

Most of these rules are built around standardization. If everyone at least tries to do things the same way, then it will be far easier for everyone to make sense of what others do. Imagine the chaos of one person randomly deciding that they would write their newspaper with a diagonal text alignment and alternating left-to-right and right-to-left text flow. Maybe it would work for a brief time as a publicity stunt, but everyone who tried to read it would give up because it would be just too hard to make sense of it.

Style guides are documents that set out specific rules that layer on top of the more basic rules to provide standardization. This standardization, while it may sound a bit confining, actually works to the author’s benefit in many ways because it allows the reader to focus on the document’s content and not on the minutia of delivery or appearance. Consistently followed rules soon become something a reader expects and when they expect something, it no longer pulls them out of the document’s content.

Style guides can run the gamut of large tomes to small single page documents, depending on the purpose, depth of coverage, and scope.

Common Style Guides

I’ve listed the most common style guides I deal with below. There are others, of course, but these are the ones I rely on.

  • The Elements of Style (aka “Strunk and White”)

    This is a general-purpose style guide which focuses on good writing. It covers things like grammar, punctuation, voice, etc. and is a great general-purpose guide to writing. It does not tend to be used as a style guide for editing, however, because it’s quite broad. I have it and still refer to it on occasion.

  • The Chicago Manual of Style (“CMoS“)

    The Chicago Manual of style is focused on formatting and elements within a document. I tend to use it as my stated editing style guide for freelance editing unless a client requests (and provides) a different style guide. It’s more about publication and delivery than about concepts of writing.

  • The Associated Press Stylebook

    This is a specialized style guide for journalists. Although I don’t edit to it, I do keep it on hand as a reference when something I am editing is quoting a journalistic source.

  • Scientific Style And Format: The CSE Manual for Authors, Editors, And Publishers (“CSE“)

    This is another specialized style guide, focused on academic and scientific publication. I rarely end up using this one at all but, like many editors, I can’t toss away a potentially useful style guide, so it’s still on the reference shelf.

  • House Style Guides

    Many publishing houses build a custom style guide for their authors and editors that is very tailored to what they publish and specific issues they have had to resolve. Many times these house style guides will indicate the use of one of the general style guides as a starting point and only call out any changes, clarifications or negations they have from the general style guide. It’s been my experience that most of the house style guides I’ve seen tend to cover usage of specific words or terms, how to handle attributions and copyright or trademark issues, and how to format manuscripts for that house.

Why do these style guides matter to a writer? There are actually some really compelling reasons to buy and consistently use a style guide, especially if you are self-publishing. Since the purpose of a style guide is to enforce consistency, the use of one will make your work more consistent to the reader and it will help eliminate issues like spelling and/or capitalizing “email” six different ways in a single manuscript. These distractions bother readers more than you may think and are real impediments to their appreciation of the content of the work.

If you are self-publishing, you can decide on which style guide you’d like to use, though I recommend Chicago Manual of Style. If you are writing for a specific publisher, either to sell to that publisher or you are already under contract to them, it’s a good idea to see if you can get information from them on what style guide(s) they are using in-house. Some publishers have this information on their submissions page, sometimes you can find out by conducting a web search and you can always ask your assigned editor, if you have one.

If you are hiring an editor to help you prepare your work for submission or publication, be sure to clarify what style guide your editor is using. My own freelance editing contract states specifically that I use CMoS as my default unless a different style guide is agreed upon and provided to me.

If your editor cannot tell you what style guide they are using, it’s time to find a different editor.