Home > Editor's Corner Podcast > Editor’s Corner Podcast: What Is an Author Style Guide and Which One Should You Choose?

Have you ever noticed that no matter what type of printed material you read—books, articles, papers, etc.—each industry-specific publication looks much the same as the next: one space after periods; a certain placement of commas; a particular format to block quotations; and footnotes and endnotes all tidy and consistent? This continuity is due to one thing: use of a style guide. Join us as we discuss the various style guides—and how to use them!


Stephanie: Angela and I have been editing collectively for 31 years, and in this podcast we aim to take some of the confusion out of writing a book. In today’s podcast we are going to discuss the importance of choosing a style guide. And typically, style guides are thought of as being for non-fiction and they tend to cover how you should format and style all sorts of things, including tables, figures, reference citations, bibliographies and so on and so forth. Although you can use just about any of them even for fiction. So, I’m probably actually jumping ahead a little bit there but I always like to do that because a lot of people, I think, might think, “Well, I’m writing a novel so what’s the point of a style guide?” But I promise it can be helpful, so keep listening.

Angela: Well, and I think too we probably should define what a style guide is, because I think a lot of people … if you’re outside the industry or you haven’t had any experience with publishing, you hear the term style guide and this big question mark pops up in your head. So-

Stephanie: That’s true.

Angela: Yeah, so basically a style guide is a book, and there are a bunch of different style guides.

Stephanie: So many.

Angela: Yeah, so they’re industry specific, so the medical industry would have one. The engineering industry would have one, and they … I guess, they’d like a guidance system for authors, and editors, and publishers about where things like commas should be placed. How to format quotations, how to format in-notes and footnotes. Basically, the look of whatever you’re publishing.

Stephanie: Right.

Angela: We keep doing all of these podcasts on these really unglamorous subjects like commas and changes. Everybody is like, “Oh my gosh, that’s so exciting,” but style guides are interesting because they’re incredibly important. They’re kind of like ghosts, they’re always there, you just never actually know they’re there, and you may not have heard of them but if you’ve ever had anything published including an article online, style guides have been applied to your work.

Stephanie: Right, and you’re right it is kind of unglamorous but I think the glamor is in the inspiration of authors. There’s not a whole lot we can do about the inspiration. That’s really up to the authors, and getting down into these nitty-gritty stuff where we editors are really … like we’re at home and we love it. We get excited about it, and it’s our area so we can help you if it’s not your area of expertise.

Angela: Exactly, because there are so many little technical pieces that go into editing and publishing things, so we’re just going to try to give you guys an idea of some other stuff that we use, and one of them is style guides.

Stephanie: Yeah, exactly, and because there are so many out there I think the best thing that you can do is just go out there and Google to see if there … if you don’t do a lot of reading already in your industry or in your area, and find out what tends to be most commonly used. Like Angela mentioned there is the AMA for the American Medical Association style guide and we’ve got the CMS which is pretty much industry standard in publishing, but not always. I’ve even come across a style guide specific to equestrian writing.

Angela: That is true. That’s true. I used that a couple of weeks ago for the first time. That one was interesting.

Stephanie: It is, and it’s … Most style guides out there for very specific areas like that they tend to reference the CMS or something else.

Angela: Right.

Stephanie: A lot of what those smaller style guides do is say, “Here is how we treat these words that are specific to our industry and our specialty.”

Angela: Oh yes.

Stephanie: And so, even if you’re writing fiction, but say you’re writing especially about horses, somebody on a ranch, make sure to go out and see how they do that because those are very specific things that, say, the Chicago manual of style will not cover. But, a lot of these reference manuals and style guides are meant to complement each other.

Angela: That’s exactly right. I think of them like you’ve got the overall context of the Chicago manual, and then these are kind of underneath that. The Chicago manual, as we’ve talked about before, is just enormous, but even they can’t cover everything so they’re not going to be able to tell you every single medical term that you might need to know. About how to hyphenate it, using it as a compound word, do you italicize it? You have to have specific style guides for specific industries. So, like Stephanie said, you’ve got one for medical association, sociological association, gosh, research papers, psychological association, pretty much anything you can think of.

For news media, especially online and print, you actually have something called the associated press style book. You’ve probably heard of that one even if you don’t realize it. It’s abbreviated AP, so any time you see newsprint, newspapers, online articles, that’s the style book that they’ve been using, and it’s definitely got some differences from Chicago manual. But, Dog Ear for fiction and non-fiction uses Chicago manual.

Stephanie: Although, one thing that we do like to point out is, if you have … If you are, for example, writing in say, the AMA, the American Medical Association style, just let us know that. We definitely are well versed in knowing how to use style guides, and we can definitely follow that. And it actually helps if we know that you have chosen a style guide, it makes our lives so much easier because we don’t have to sit there and go, “What are you doing?” Because we know how to out there and find out that information. I have at least one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight … I have at least eight style guides on my bookshelf that sits right next to my desk.

Angela: Light reading for bed time, right?

Stephanie: Yes, well, or going, “oh, I’m going to turn to this book.”

Angela: Yeah, exactly.

Stephanie: Eight, at least eight that I have on my shelf alone, and then I’ve got of course the equestrian one saved elsewhere because it was lovely, it was electronic. [crosstalk 00:06:57].

Angela: Yeah, exactly. Well, that’s the good thing about Chicago manual, and honestly it seemed like during our research, a lot of these style manuals are now … they have online subscription versions. I know AP does, and I know Chicago manual does, the Chicago manual one I use every day. It’s got this really cool forum where you can post questions, and some of the Chicago manual staff will actually answer them and also other users as well, so if you have something that’s not covered, and you can’t find the answer to it, you can always ask for help. Which has been … Actually, it’s saved me a couple of times being able to [crosstalk 00:07:36] just kind of … yeah, feel around and see what other people think about it, because not every issue is black and white, and easily fixed.

Stephanie: Well, absolutely, and even if you do look through the CMS you will see where they say, “Well, you know, this is what we suggest, but, you know, you may have to modify for your needs,” and that’s again, as we’ve talked about, a good editor is flexible and also know what tends to be standard in your specific genre or specialty. If they are not a specialized editor, we are generalists-

Angela: Exactly. That’s true. That’s true, we have to be-

Stephanie: We’re not specialists but we have a general idea of things.

Angela: That’s right.

Stephanie: At Dog Ear, I should say. So, yeah, and there are print versions of all of these if you’re like me and you’re dinosaur and you prefer the paper, because I remember exactly where to find things.

Angela: That’s right.

Stephanie: And because our internet is not so great, because we live in the country in a very underserved internet area, so there are books available and electronic forms available, and it’s wonderful whenever you can get either.

Angela: Exactly, and try to remember too, I mean, when you send in a book to a publisher they’re not expecting everything to be perfect. That’s what editors are for. Well, that’s what we’re trying to be for anyway, [crosstalk 00:09:00] perfect part but we do strive. But, I think one of the biggest things I’m looking for as an editor is just consistency, so if you are hyphenating a word in one place it gets hyphenated all the way throughout. If you’re like using italics for a specific term or for a specific reason, use it all the way throughout. What really trips up not just editors but readers or anyone is seeing one thing in one place and it’s just different all the way throughout the text.

I think authors need to have an idea in their head of what they’re trying to say, and sometimes you can get that through the formatting of a word. Making it like italics so that it comes across as more important or hyphenating to kind of bring, I guess, awareness to it when the reader is reading thought to make it that much more noticeable. Even if you can just make something consistent and then let the editor apply the style guide, we will bow before you and name stars in your honor.

Stephanie: That’s right, and most times those style guides will tell you what to do, honestly, if you want to emphasize something. And again, going back to your industry standard, they’re going to tell you how it should be done in your industry.

Angela: Exactly.

Stephanie: So, the American Sociological Association style guide for example, is a very, very tiny little book. It is so small, I tend to lose it on my bookshelf, but it has very specific things. It says, treat it like this not like this. This differs from the CMS, but in every other way use the CMS. Like, that is a [crosstalk 00:10:42].

Angela: Right.

Stephanie: So yeah, know what you need to be doing and we can fix everything else.

Angela: That’s exactly right, and the cool thing about, I think, most editors at Dog Ear actually will send back authors a style sheet. So, when we go through your manuscript we write down all of the spellings and I guess formats of words that are non-standard, and when we return your manuscript we also return that style sheet. So, you’re going to understand exactly why we did what we did all the way throughout your manual, so when you make changes … not your manual, your book, because you’re not probably writing a manual, stick with me here, it’s early, but you will understand why we made the changes and be able to replicate them through your revisions.

Stephanie: Right, and those who don’t send you specifically something called a style sheet, explain that in some other way usually in the manuscript.

Angela: Right.

Stephanie: So, we actually don’t have that hard and fast rule, but everybody does that in some way.

Angela: Yeah, exactly.

Stephanie: I just want to make that … So, like if you get your [inaudible 00:11:49] back, you’re like, “There’s no style sheet, what do I do?” Rest assured it should be explained somewhere.

Angela: Exactly. Yeah, I think you even have that rule that you explained it on the first instance and then like let it to kind of speak for itself that way through.

Stephanie: Yeah, exactly.

Angela: And, I did want to make … would you like to go ahead?

Stephanie: Go ahead.

Angela: I did want to say to you that style guides are updated pretty regularly. We have a new edition of Chicago manual coming out in September. It is the first new edition in seven years. It’s got some interesting changes to it too, so things like email is no longer going to be hyphenated. Internet is going to be lower cased. They’re going to actually allow the use of they T-H-E-Y. Yes, here it comes, in formal writing and speech to replace she and he. So, she went to the restaurant, they ordered a sandwich, and I’m pretty sure a lot of people cringe and think the end of the world is coming with that introduction. Yes, it’s true. It’s true.

Stephanie: This is part of that … Oh, this is that moment where that part of me that say, “English is a living language, and it … you know, it changes and it grows, and it oh,” and then there’s that part of me, because I’m an editor, so there’s that par of me that says, “Yes, it’s a living language.” And then there’s the part of me that goes, “But we need to do things correctly.” There’s always a battle of each other.

Angela: It’s the school mom part of you that wants things to be exactly the same, because I think text and speech is becoming so informal that nobody wants to read that kind of formality. I mean, it just doesn’t … I don’t know, it doesn’t sound normal anymore.

Stephanie: But singular, they just drives me crazy. It always has.

Angela: I know. I am the bearer of bad news for many today I’m sorry to say, but you have until next month to get comfortable with the idea, and decide, “I’m not going to do it.”

Stephanie: That’s some small consolation.

Angela: That’s right. You’re not going to do it anyway. You’re sticking with number 16 of the edition.

Stephanie: No. Well no, what I will still do is try to revise it so that we’re not using that formal stilted he/she but-

Angela: That’s right, the walk around.

Stephanie: Yeah, always, because I strive for right, clear understanding, and I just think that they, singular they is … but that’s okay. That’s okay. I will always strive to make sure that your text is the absolute best that it can be.

Angela: Exactly.

Stephanie: Oh man, see I was excited to hear about the CMS, the new CMS because I didn’t hear about it because I’ve been editing away in my own little world, using my hard copy.

Angela: That’s right, that’s right.

Stephanie: And not knowing of the new CMS, so this is good. I will be on the lookout for it, and then I will cross out the parts that I don’t like when I get my new-

Angela: Then do whatever you want to do anyway, yes, which you just completely negated our idea that style guides just help each other communicate, so thank you for that.

Stephanie: Okay, I’m just kidding. I will follow the rules, however, I will put in my protest.

Angela: Caveat, yeah, I got you. I got you. It’s the editor’s preference.

Stephanie: I will to the author that I do not like this rule but I am following it, but I suggest that there is a better way.

Angela: Yourself the maverick editor.

Stephanie: Because the other way is still not incorrect, it is just-

Angela: That is true. It’s just opening up a new path.

Stephanie: Exactly.

Angela: Yeah, that’s right.

Stephanie: So, is there anything else that we have to say now that my heart is broken?

Angela: Well, now that I’ve completely killed you for the rest of the day, I think we have covered everything we need to cover. Basically, style guides exist, they will help you out and make your manuscript or article, or whatever you’re writing more consistent and readers will be able to understand what you’re trying to say just that much easier.

Stephanie: Right, absolutely, and that is always our goal, is for consistency and clarity. That is always the most important goal in trying to get any message across, whether you’re writing fiction of non-fiction. So, that’s all we have to say about style guides. So, we’re going to kind of give you a little bit of insight into how we critique your work when we’re writing literary critiques or literary edits, but until then keep writing.