Introduction to Style Guides

A style guide sounds like it belongs in the fashion industry. You might guess that it’s an annual Vogue publication that shows you the latest skirts and what colors are in style. Not to be left out, Elle might publish its own style guide, and so might InStyle and Cosmopolitan. There are some basic fashion rules that all these magazines will agree on, but each magazine will have its own opinion about what is in style and how to assemble an outfit for the latest look. None of them are right; none of them are wrong. It depends on who you ask.

And so it is with English usage. There are very few universal rules, despite the lists you see on social media that admonish you about what is (and mostly what is not) correct English. It depends on who you ask.

In publishing, a style guide is a set of guidelines for how English should be used. There are industry-standard style guides, house style guides (sometimes called style sheets because they are smaller than industry-standard style guides), and project-specific style sheets.

Industry-Standard Style Guides

Industry-standard style guides are the granddaddies of style guides. They govern English usage in a huge segment of publishing, with the exception of specialized fields and some academic settings. There are two biggies you should be aware of:

  • The Chicago Manual of Style: This thousand-plus page book, now in its 16th edition, is the most widely used style guide in publishing. It is the go-to resource for most fiction and nonfiction books.
  • The Associated Press Stylebook: This book is updated annually and is the definitive style guide in media, such as news and magazines (both print and online). It’s currently in its 46th edition and has nearly 500 pages.

Specialized industries and publishing segments have their own style guides. Here are some notable examples (just as with fashion magazines, there are many more):

  • AMA Manual of Style: This book from the American Medical Association governs medical publications. It’s currently in its 10th edition and has more than 1,000 pages.
  • Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association: This popular style guide is used mostly in the social and behavioral sciences. It’s currently in its sixth edition and contains nearly 300 pages.
  • MLA Handbook: Long a tradition in academia, this style guide from the Modern Language Association is used for research papers in colleges and universities. It has nearly 300 pages and is in its seventh edition.

House Style Guides

Publishers have their own internal style guides, which are called house style guides or style sheets. I’ve seen house style guides range anywhere from a couple pages of informal notes to an inch-thick three-ring binder crammed with tiny print. Sometimes house style guides are very organized and logical, and sometimes they are chaotic documents filled with redundancies and contradictions. In a best-case scenario, a house style guide includes only deviations from whichever industry-standard style guide the publisher uses as their default style. It also includes information about which other authoritative resources should be used, such as general and specialized dictionaries and other reference works.

Project Style Sheets

A style sheet that is specific to a given project is usually developed by the copyeditor. As with house style guides, project style sheets can range from simple word lists to comprehensive descriptions of editorial choices that were made during the editing process. The complexity of the project style sheet usually depends on the demands of the project and the expectations of the client.

Which Style Guide Should You Use?

I listed the page counts and edition numbers of the industry-standard style guides to illustrate how much there is to know about English usage and what long traditions there are in various industries. If you are an author who has a contract (or hopes to secure one) with a traditional publisher, the publisher will dictate which style guide will be used. If you’re a self-publishing author, choose the style guide that is most commonly accepted for the type of book or publication you are writing. Hire a qualified editor to guide you in this process so your book will be taken seriously when it’s published. You don’t want your book to be of lesser quality than books that have undergone a stringent editing process.

Most of all, don’t pay attention to those quickie lists of grammar rules you supposedly should never break. In English, as in fashion, right and wrong is a matter of style.

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