Any project containing text for public consumption—books, magazines, newspapers, websites, reports, and so on—will look more professional and read better if it adheres to a specific style standard. To achieve professionalism, writers and editors use a stylebook, or style guide: a reference manual of writing and publishing conventions that enables them to follow accepted editorial standards.
Why use a style guide?
Style guides cover in great detail topics such as spelling, punctuation, capitalization, numbers, quotations, abbreviations, indexes, and more. They help you determine how to best present your text.
Writing and editing to a style standard promotes clarity and consistency, especially when text is produced by multiple writers and editors for the same publication or company.
Kinds of style guides
A variety of style guides exist for different purposes. Three of the most popular style guides in use today are The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition; The Associated Press Stylebook, 56th edition; and the MLA Handbook, 9th edition. CMOS is used primarily in the publishing industry, AP for journalism, and MLA in academia. (I use CMOS.)
Niche style guides are also used in certain industries, such as Microsoft Manual of Style, 4th edition, for technical writing and communications in the software industry.
How to familiarize yourself with a style guide
Once you choose a style guide for the type of writing or editing you’ll be doing, the first thing you must do is familiarize yourself with it.
Start with the table of contents. Pick a section you’re interested in and leaf through its subsections, reading headings to learn how the section is organized and how granular the topics are. Then study a subsection of interest, perusing the text and any examples.
Do you see how the information will help you with writing or editing a manuscript?
Style guide-induced paranoia
One drawback to reviewing a style guide this way is that you’ll recognize how much you don’t know. What could happen is that you begin to question everything you write or edit. “Is this correct? How do I find out what the stylebook says?” (Hint: start with the index.) You may be compelled to look up anything and everything you’re not certain about.
Granted, it’s best to check issues you’re unsure of. For example, how do you represent the numbers 3, 86, or 700? With numerals or written out, as text? CMOS says in sections 9.2 and 9.4 that numbers one through one hundred should be spelled out, as well as larger whole numbers that can be written in two words. So, three, eighty-six, and seven hundred are correct. (AP has a different standard for numbers.)
However, no one can memorize the contents of any style guide in a few weeks.
One way to learn your style guide
It takes a lot of time—possibly years—to thoroughly familiarize yourself with a style guide. Even then, you’ll never get beyond needing to look up the guidelines for some issues.
The Rev. Worthy Smarmington, editor in chief at Protestant Chronicle1, recommends this tack: “Treat your treasured stylebook like a devotional and read a subsection every day. Two on your chosen Sabbath. Then pray you remember what you’ve read.”
If you can’t, simply look up the information again.
Consult the index—or make your own
Study the index. It’s the best way to find what you’re looking for. (In my opinion, the index in the print CMOS is easier to use than the CMOS Online search facility.)
You may even want to go through the entire guide and list all the subject and section numbers of topics you think you’ll use most now and in the future. Refer to this list as your personal, working index.
Employing these approaches will, over time, enable you to learn the guidelines for hundreds of everyday textual concerns—and make you a better writer or editor.
I’m available to edit dark fiction. For more information, see Dark Fiction Editing.
1. A fictitious expert at a fictitious publication.