A Style Guide Tutorial: Navigating the Citation and Formatting Jungle

A Style Guide Tutorial: Navigating the Citation and Formatting Jungle
Updated on 5 August 2014

MLA, APA, AP, style guide, Chicago Manual of Style, tutorial, GrammarlyYou have to write a paper, or copyedit one, and you have a heap of style manuals in front of you. Which one do you use? Are they consistent? Is there a difference between them? Is it all arbitrary?

As you work on your text, it stares up at you, glaring with its colons, commas, and parenthetical citations. Where do they go? Are the lines single or double-spaced? How wide are the margins supposed to be? Wrestling the paper into twenty different shapes, you begin to hear voices: “the year, in parentheses, after the author’s name” and “no, no, the cited page number goes at the end of the sentence, in parentheses.”

Each style guide is specific, with literally thousands of differences between them. The waters get muddier. The overlap between the guides is enough to swirl in our heads like some alphabet soup. You think you find the right formatting guide and just when you become used to working with it, you discover another publishing house prefers something else.

It becomes clear that you should be at least marginally aware of several guides. Before you decide on one manual over the other, however, consider two questions:

  • What are you writing?
  • Who is your audience?

MLA Style: The MLA Style Manual is the ivory tower favorite. It had its genesis in the 1980s and quickly became the standard of university English majors everywhere. Not just limited to English papers, however, MLA is the style guide for a host of humanities disciplines, including foreign language studies. It is widely recognized as the preferred formatting style of scholars. You will find it used for any paper meant for publication in a humanities journal.

AP Style: The Associated Press Stylebook is the go-to manual for journalism. It has become the industry standard for broadcasters and newspapers, primarily due to its shortcuts. In this business, writing space is scarce, so little tweaks, like using numerals instead of written numbers, saves space, money, and time. Along with the Chicago Manual, AP is a formatting style often used by mainstream publishers.

Chicago Manual: If you write a paper on history, philosophy, or religion, it would be wise to become familiar with The Chicago Manual of Style. Also called Turabian, the Chicago Manual has flexible applications. Used by editors in multiple writing arenas, you are bound to bump into it. The differences between Chicago and AP can get rather cosmetic at times, but they are important differences. Editors are familiar with both guides and picking the right one can make or break your chances, if you are trying to publish.

APA Style: Created by the American Psychological Association, APA is the preferred citation style in disciplines such as business and medicine. APA’s system strives to help readers comprehend the material they are reading. Articles written for medical journals are formatted in APA style.

Bluebook: Created by the Harvard Law Review Association, the Bluebook is the bible of legal citation style. Most judges and lawyers were educated using the Bluebook. However, some courts have adopted their own systems. You should research a court’s specific formatting style before submitting any work to them.

Scientific Disciplines: When writing a scientific article, remember that nearly all of the disciplines have their own style guides, which are often specific tweaks on more mainstream guides. These tweaks matter, however. Whether it is the American Mathematical Society (AMS style), the American Institute of Physics (AIP style), or the Institute of Electronics and Electrical Engineers (IEEE style), there is a specific formatting guide out there exclusive to each.

If you are writing an academic paper, preparing a fiction manuscript for publication, or copyediting an existing manuscript, formatting is a key component to a polished product. Depending on your audience, or where you wish to publish the work, there are very specific guidelines concerning how a text should appear. A little research in the beginning will save you a lot of rewriting, and reformatting later.

What’s your preferred writing style? Share in the comments!

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