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The secret resource for smart writers

Secret resource for smart writers

What’s that? You don’t know where to put a comma in that sentence?

Say it ain’t so!

You’re worried your grammar isn’t good enough?

Say it ain’t so!

You don’t know how to quote someone, set up dialogue, or format a manuscript?

Oh, heartbreaker, say it ain’t so!

You might have wondered, at one point or another, how experienced writers know what they know.

Take me, for example. I know grammar and punctuation like I know the tops of my big toes. You don’t think I learned all that in school, do you?

Well, I did learn a lot in school though not much about toes.

But the hardcore learning took place on the job as a freelance writer and, later, as a copyeditor. I’m still learning and always will be.

How do I do it?

Shhhhh. Don’t tell anyone, but here’s the thing:

Whenever I have a question about grammar, punctuation, or even manuscript formatting or copyright issues, I go to my super secret resource.

Do you have a resource that’s available any time of the day or night? If you don’t, you should.

Smart writers use a style guide

The secret resource is a style guide or style manual.

Style guides aren’t that big of a secret, but plenty of writers (maybe you?) don’t know about them, don’t know what they are, or don’t know which one to use.

Some even think style guides are stupid or a form of cheating, but they’re an essential resource for all smart writers.

Style guides are like bibles for writers, editors, and publishers. They’re a set of standards and best practices for writing, editing, and formatting in various professions and disciplines. And they’re similar when it comes to the basics.

But with language being the fickle thing it is, somebody has to keep some order.

If we didn’t have style guides—or dictionaries, for that matter—written language would be so inconsistent we’d have literary chaos. And writers would be playing a guessing game.

Smart writers are familiar with at least two style guides

Over 100 years ago, the University of Chicago Press organized a style sheet for publication consistency. The notes became a pamphlet and, before long, a book in 1906: Manual of Style: Being a compilation of the typographical rules in force at the University of Chicago Press, to which are appended specimens of type in use.

Isn’t that title just darling?

It was one of the first American style guides and the first edition of The Chicago Manual of Style, which is now in its 16th edition. It’s become the author and book publisher’s authority, and it’s available in printed form and online.

In 1953, the Associated Press published the first edition of The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law as we know it today. Called AP Stylebook for short, it’s the bible for journalists, newspaper reporters, and public relations professionals among others.

Many other style guides exist; in fact, every academic discipline adheres to one. And guides are available for English as it’s written in various countries.

For writers and editors of British English, The Oxford Style Manual and the BBC News style guide are popular.

In Australia, writers can refer to Style Manual: For Authors, Editors and Printers.

And in New Zealand, various guides exist for different purposes. One is the The Govt.nz style guide. Another is The Write Style Guide for New Zealanders.

Check here for Guides by Style and Discipline and here for guides grouped by profession.

Smart writers choose the right style guide

If you’re a blogger or any type of writer who uses American English, you have two main choices.

The AP Style Guide or The Chicago Manual of Style.

If your blogging niche has anything to do with the news, you might want to go with the AP Style Guide. “The news” could mean almost any topic you’d find in an online news source or a big city newspaper: current events, fashion news, and celebrity gossip, to name just a few.

Almost everyone else—especially fiction and non-fiction book authors or authors-to-be—can feel confident about using The Chicago Manual of Style.

A big exception is freelance writers and editors who often must abide by an organization’s style guide or “house style.” Always ask what guide a client uses, if any. And follow it, even if it’s not your own.

Smart writers know the main differences between Chicago and AP

In addition to the academic fields or industries that prefer them, The Chicago Manual of Style and the AP Stylebook have other big differences and many that are less obvious.

  • AP recommends no comma after the last item in a series before “and” unless needed for clarity.
    apples, oranges and pears
    apples, oranges, pears, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
    Chicago recommends consistent use of the last comma in a series before “and,” which is known as the Oxford or serial comma.
    apples, oranges, and pears.
  • AP recommends spaces around the em dash — like this.
    Chicago prefers no spaces—like this.
  • AP recommends periods/full stops in many abbreviations such as U.S. for United States and P.O. Box for post office box.
    Chicago
    doesn’t recommend periods: US and PO Box.
  • AP’s official dictionary is Webster’s New World College Dictionary.
    Chicago’s official dictionary is Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.
  • AP is nowhere near as detailed as Chicago.
    Chicago is the most comprehensive of all the style guides.

Read here for more differences.

Which style guide should smart writers like you choose?

Smart writers stick with one style guide for consistency. But it never hurts to check recommendations in another guide, and it’s not a crime to make your own decision on a particular issue.

For example, Chicago (my style guide) prefers to spell out numbers up to and including ninety-nine. I prefer to spell them out up to nine and use numbers (digits) after that. The important thing is to be consistent with your choice unless it looks silly, which it would if I had 9 apples and ten pears (and Chicago agrees).

Pick the guide that’s best suited to the kind of writing you do, but if you’re unsure or don’t fit into any particular category, I recommend The Chicago Manual of Style.

Why? It covers almost anything you’ll ever need as a writer and they have an online version that’s great. You can make notes, mark pages or entries, and email a particular rule to a client or fellow writer as proof you know what you’re talking about.

Plus it’s what I use, of course, and Chicago worships Oxford commas as much as I do.

You don’t like Oxford commas?

Oh, honeychile, say it ain’t so!

Questions? Concerns? Stories to share? Just want to say hi? Comments are always welcome!

PS I was kidding with that “don’t tell anyone” thing. Share with your friends on Twitter, Facebook, or wherever you hang out online.

Musical inspiration credit (for your listening pleasure): Weezer: “Say it ain’t so”

Photo credit: Amnesty International UK Secret Comedy Podcast

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3 comments… add one
  • Thanks for this great article, Leah. I knew about the style guides you mentioned, but I guess it had never really “clicked” that one style guide should be adopted as a standard for your writing. It’s one of those “aha!” moments for me. The em dash has caused me unbelievable stress! lol Now I understand why I sometimes see it with spaces and other times without spaces. And now I’ve got to figure out, as future food writer, what kind of style guide to follow as my standard. I like several of the suggestions in this article (and comments) suggesting you can even develop your own personal style guide. http://www.chow.com/food-news/131188/we-need-a-definitive-food-style-guide/

    Reply
    • Hi Eric, Glad it’s helpful to you! I know what you mean about em dashes; I feel like my eyes are getting pulled across the page when they have spaces around them. But I know it’s just a matter of preferred (AP) style.

      I’m surprised Chow doesn’t have its own house style. I buzzed around on the site and Googled since that article is a few years old, and I didn’t find anything (but they probably have one among editors).

      Yes, you can develop your own personal style guide. If I were you, though, I’d model it after a big, well-established food magazine you admire and maybe hope to write for. Bon Appétit is a good one. Here’s an interesting article: http://www.bonappetit.com/test-kitchen/inside-our-kitchen/article/what-does-a-recipe-editor-do You could even contact them (or any other publication) and request a copy of their style guidelines. No guarantee you’ll get a reply, but it doesn’t hurt to ask. (Best bet is usually to contact an editorial assistant rather than a big editor.) At a glance, they’re likely based on Chicago since the em dashes are closed 🙂

      Reply
      • I can’t thank you enough, Leah. Thanks for the very specific recommendation and URL. I will certainly make sure to do that.

        Reply

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