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