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5 reasons to follow a style guide

Style Guides

Do you follow a style guide? Do you know which one you should use?

Lots of writers have questions about grammar and punctuation or, if you’re like me, sometimes you forget the rule for unusual situations you rarely see or use. Or you know the rule changed, but you need to make sure.

Just a few months ago, my novel editor (yes, the editor hired an editor) highlighted my capitalized “Internet” and made a note: “Consider lower case.”

Since she knows her business and I trust her, I had to think about it. She had to be on to something. Since I follow The Chicago Manual of Style—it’s standard for novels—I quickly looked it up. Nope.

The Chicago Manual of Style

So I Googled. Ah-ha! AP Stylebook recommends lower-case for Internet as of April 2016. Who knew? Not me. I must have missed that tweet.

AP Stylebook

Thing is, I don’t often follow the AP Stylebook since it’s mainly used by journalists, although their rules can be food for thought, at least. And AP is similar to Chicago, but they do differ.

For example, AP doesn’t recommend the so-called Oxford comma, which is the comma after the last item in a series before a coordinating conjunction such as and. You’ve seen the memes:

Oxford comma

AP: I love cooking, my pets and my family.
This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.
She took a photograph of her parents, the president and the vice president.

Chicago: I love cooking, my pets, and my family.
This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand, and God.
She took a photograph of her parents, the president, and the vice president.

That sentence about cooking actually has another issue: parallelism. Items in a series should be the same parts of speech. Technically, they’re all nouns—cooking, pets, family—but cooking is a gerund (a verb with -ing used as a noun), and the other two use possessive pronouns.

Better: I love cooking, playing with my pets, and visiting my family.

AP Stylebook also differs from The Chicago Manual of Style on em-dashes. AP recommends a space before and after, but Chicago does not.

AP: We were eating dinner — Grandma’s famous roast turkey — when the tornado hit.

Chicago: We were eating dinner—Grandma’s famous roast turkey—when the tornado hit.

Most differences are small, but you need to be aware of them. Consistency is important in any kind of writing.

It’s important to follow the correct style guide.

Journalists follow the AP Stylebook.

Creative writers, especially novelists, follow The Chicago Manual of Style because that’s what publishers use. 

Bloggers and non-fiction writers often follow Chicago as well (if they follow any style guide), but if the writing is more journalistic (newspaper reporting style), then they follow AP (or should). Here’s some good advice on developing your own style guide.

Other style guides include the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers (MLA), the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA), The Gregg Reference Manual for business writers, and many others.

Personally, I don’t know why anyone bothers with Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style although it’s a good starting place for learning and has some great tips. It’s not a reference tool, for starters, and no publisher, editor, or copyeditor claims it as their style guide. There’s just not enough information provided. Plus, it was published sixty years ago although it’s been revised, and it won’t help if you’re wondering whether to capitalize Internet or not.

I think it’s just a supposedly hip retro trend that few enthusiasts examine, especially since blogs like Copyblogger recommend it. Here’s what Grammar Girl says: Does The Elements of Style deserve its hallowed status?

And without further ado, here are some good reasons for following a style guide.

Five reasons to follow a style guide:

1. Improve your grammar and punctuation. It’s a good feeling to know how to use your tools. Sure, a rough draft can be a mass of misspelled words and faulty grammar, but when you’re familiar with current preferred usage, you’ll make fewer errors and will have less editing work later.

2. Get an edge on your search for an agent.  If you’re trying to get published traditionally, you’ll need an agent to represent your writing, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. If your grammar and punctuation are top-notch and you follow the preferred style guide, you stand a much better chance.

3. Save money with editing expenses. You can do the bulk of the copyediting work before looking for an editor (if you’re self-publishing, it’s essential). Most editors and copyeditors like me charge less for relatively clean copy or manuscripts and more for writing that requires additional work. And any writer, even if you’re an editor, should have a second set of eyes for a lengthy work such as a novel or non-fiction book.

4. Save yourself time. Instead of asking questions in forums or in a writing group, you can answer them yourself. Plus, you’ll know you have the right answer since friends might easily be wrong.

5. Decrease worry, stress, and doubt. Your story or book might be good or even great, but if it’s loaded with errors, not many will read it. Plus, you’ll have more confidence when you know the rule or where you can find it. And you’ll know what to ask of your editor and whether they’re doing a good job.

The beauty of using a style guide is that it removes any questions or doubts and ensures consistency. Sure, there may be a time to break a rule. In my novel, for example, I consciously used—OMG—split predicates! Yep. I did. It made sense it some cases, and nothing else would do. That’s actually common in novels, and it’s annoying to me when it’s overdone or not done carefully. But sometimes, a rule just has to be broken in favor of rhythm or intended meaning.

And I could make Internet lower case instead of capitalizing it. If AP is doing it, The Chicago Manual of Style will probably follow, though not necessarily. And I doubt anyone would care. But why bother worrying about it? I’d rather just write and let the editors at Chicago do the thinking for me.

If you know the rules, you can feel confident when you break them. And using a style guide appropriate for your writing purposes is a great way to start.

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1 comment… add one
  • You were correct to have presumed (from your perspective whenever this was written – I believe in 2015?) that The Chicago Manual of Style would recommend lowercase for internet.

    From the preface of their (2017) 17th edition:
    Chapter 7 now recommends …. internet (lowercase) in response to changes in usage and editorial preferences.

    Then from Chapter 7 (7.76)
    Terms related to the internet are capitalized only if they are trademarked as such or otherwise constitute the proper name of an organization or the like.

    Nice article by the way – thank you!

    I especially liked your examples highlighting the differences between AP & CMOS recommendations with respect to the Oxford comma.


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