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No rule about English is 100% correct. Or 100 percent. Or one hundred percent.
No definitive rule book exists. That drives some writers and editors batty, but I find it relieving. We can all stop having these debates now, because no one is right — and everyone is right.
Instead of rule books, we wrangle writing with industry style guides. Realizing we could follow any of a myriad of paths that wind through the forest of this language, style guides set up signposts to help us choose grammar and punctuation consistently throughout an industry, publication or project.
5 things your editor wants you to know about style guides
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1. Consistency is the thing
Whether you spell out figures or use numerals isn’t the point. The point is making sure you don’t spell it out in one article or chapter and use numerals in the next, because that looks unpolished.
Style guide editors have to make a call when they face options about things like numbers, hyphens and commas. They take note of common usage and special considerations in their field whenever possible, but sometimes they just have to make a call to avoid chaos.
2. Know these four guides
Style guides are innumerable, but you’ll be in good shape if you know how to use these four:
Associated Press Stylebook: Use AP style for journalism, and most blogs and content marketing. It includes standards for the grammar stuff, plus some of the most comprehensive guides for how to write about newsy topics and cultural conversations.
Chicago Manual of Style: Use CMOS a.k.a. Chicago style for commercial publishing and some academic journals. Along with the grammar stuff (which often famously* clashes with AP), it includes source citation and manuscript formatting standards for book publishing.
Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association: Use APA style for academic writing in the social sciences and humanities. It includes the grammar stuff, plus the citation style and paper format you probably know from school.
MLA Handbook: You probably used this for citation and paper formatting in English classes. You should only need it after college if you write for a scholarly journal in select humanities fields. It’s mostly guidelines for citation and formatting, with few recommendations for grammar and usage.
Most publications start with one of the major style guides and deviate in a few places, which they note in an internal or house style guide.
*Among editors, AP versus Chicago is like Ali versus Frazier.
3. Ask your editor
Most editors will be delighted if you ask for style guide information when you start a long-term relationship. They might share an internal style guide with you up front, but if they don’t, here’s where you can start:
Know your industry style: This is likely the base for the publication (even if they don’t realize it). If you write for a magazine or newspaper assume they follow AP style. It’s such a ubiquitous standard that you might look silly asking.
Check published pieces: Ask your editor about deviations you notice — like, if a blog generally follows AP style but capitalizes every word in headlines.
If you write for a business client rather than a publication (as a copywriter or content marketer, for example), editorial style might be a little more elusive. Choose the most fitting style guide if they leave it up to you, and focus on consistency.
Once you know a publication’s style guide, follow it. You don’t earn points for being passionate about the Oxford comma; you just create more work for an editor.
4. When to consult a guide
This is the most important thing to know about using style guides, really. You can’t study and memorize every rule in a guide, so you have to know when to look something up.
Basically, turn to a style guide anytime you run into something writers constantly debate, like:
Punctuation, especially those pesky commas.
When to spell numbers.
How to capitalize headlines. (Regardless of the style guide they follow, blogs are notorious for anomalous headline preferences.)
How to cite sources.
When to use hyphens and compound words.
5. A “brand style guide” is different, but still useful
Some companies or marketing agencies say “style guide” when they mean a brand or visual style guide. Those include guidance on tone, voice, language and visuals for representing the brand, but are usually sparse on grammar, punctuation and usage.
If you ask a client for a style guide and get something like this, ask whether you can add notes on editorial style. The simplest thing you can do is just note which major style guide to follow — that way, you don’t have to address every issue yourself.
1. AP, Chicago, APA or MLA? Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Writing Style Guides (The Write Life): This is the most comprehensive guide to style guides you’ll find online, and 💁♀️ I wrote it. Check it out to learn more about common and alternative guides, how to pick one for your project, and how to get the most out of your chosen guide.
2. AP Style Blog: Keep up with the latest updates to the AP Stylebook, including how to write about major current events. It’s an interesting read for anyone interested in language, news or social issues.
3. The Chicago Manual of Style Online: Search the site to get answers to your burning grammar questions. Or peruse the free Q&A section for a deep dive into random grammar and punctuation chatter. (It’s truly a thrill!)
4. APA Style Help: This page lists the official resources you can use to answer questions about APA Style, including its index of style and grammar guidelines. This should be your first stop if you hit a fork in the grammar road while writing an academic paper.
5. The MLA Style Center: MLA’s online hub includes resources for students and teachers, including — what you’re probably there for — a quick guide to works cited. It also hosts Ask the MLA, a riveting Q&A section about citation and formatting.
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