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. A style guide lays out the standard for the way the contents of any written work—including punctuation, numbers, abbreviations, illustrations, tables, citations, and even certain spellings—should appear.
The most commonly used style manual for book publishers in the United States is the Chicago Manual of Style. Currently in its 16th edition, the CMS was first published in 1906 by the University of Chicago Press.1 It is comprehensive and ever-evolving, and its staff are always willing to tackle tricky issues faced by editors and writers alike.2 At more than 900 pages, the printed book is a behemoth, but the additional online subscription offers an invaluable search feature and, even better, access to an online forum where subscribers can both ask questions and share their expertise.
As you might have guessed, fiction writers have it easier than their nonfiction counterparts: For fiction writing in the US, you can never go wrong with the Chicago Manual of Style. In fact, it’s what we use here at Dog Ear Publishing for both fiction and nonfiction.
Numerous other US style manuals exist for nonfiction, however, including but not limited to:
- American Medical Association Manual of Style
- American Sociological Association Style Guide
- Citing Medicine: The National Library of Medicine Style Guide
- MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers
- Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association
- Scientific Style and Format: The CSE Manual for Authors, Editors, and Publishers
- The American Chemical Society Style Guide: Effective Communication of Scientific Information
- The Associated Press Stylebook
- The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation (used in the legal professions)
- The Gregg Reference Manual (used in business)
Because every publisher has the right and various reasons to choose any style manual it prefers, writers may benefit by inquiring about house preferences before submitting projects or proposals. This is especially true for nonfiction, as nonfiction publishers tend to have more rigid requirements, most notably in the case of academic texts.
If it isn’t possible to make contact with a potential publisher, you should still be stood in good stead by doing a bit of research to find the manual that best fits the genre of your nonfiction project. For example, if you’re penning an article about a recent development in Alzheimer’s research and would like to publish that article in the American Journal of Medicine, your best bet would be to stick to the AMA Manual of Style.3
An additional thing to be aware of is that beyond specific style manuals, some publishers employ house style sheets as well, which go a little further and add even more rules for writers (and editors!) to follow. That being said, no publisher expects a manuscript or article to arrive perfectly aligned to house style; that’s what editors are for.
Finally, we’d like to let you in on a secret about style manuals that most outside the editing industry aren’t aware of: Beyond the basics, the manuals really are meant to serve only as guides. Not every issue that arises within a manuscript has a definitive answer, and editors are required to think on their feet, coming up with creative solutions to problems—like whether to allow a run-on sentence for the purpose of aesthetics or how to style a made-up word in the best way for the project.
Publishers of fiction tend to be a bit more flexible than nonfiction publishers in allowing creative solutions, and for that reason, you might very well find differences between novels, but those differences should never catch your eye or make you think, Error! Rather, those differences should simply float by unnoticed, helping get the author’s message across as inconspicuously as possible.
We would love to end this article with a pithy quote, but the fact is that style manuals are the unsung heroes of the publishing world. They are omnipresent and yet remain firmly in the background, rarely discussed outside certain circles. But let’s face it: Without the guides, there would be no consistency in publishing, and that consistency, whether we recognize it consciously or not, is what helps us communicate effectively.
Style manuals help create a common language, bridging what would otherwise be an insurmountable chasm. They give us the ability to understand each other, and without them, the realm of the printed word would become a very confusing place.