What is an editorial style guide?

The Chicago Manual of Style, Associated Press Stylebook, MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing, and New York Times Manual of Style and Usage: these are just a few of the style guides available to editors, and they are one of the most important tools an editor can have.

Why are style guides so important? Close observers of the English language may notice that many elements of written works vary from publication to publication. These elements include capitalization, punctuation, hyphenation, and the treatment of numbers, units of measurement, and other terms that occur frequently, all of which are the natural province of a copyeditor (see Levels of Editing for more about the different levels of editing).

Style guides can be useful for developmental and substantive editors as well. Most guides will also address issues of pagination, layout, and other technical issues for articles and books. For example, the Chicago Manual of Style has extensive information about how to organize “back matter”— references, the index, appendices, and any other material found at the end of a published book—and “front matter,” which refers to the copyright, title page, introduction, and other material found before the main text.

While every editor should know about and be familiar with major style guides, they are a tool used daily—if not many times a day—by copyeditors in particular. Capitalization, hyphenation, and punctuation are unusual in that they actually become more complex the more one learns about them, since they change, not only according to audience and publication, but over time. Books published a century or two centuries ago employ different spelling and hyphenation patterns than those commonly in use today. A business publication will use very different capitalization and hyphenation than a scholarly publication, and a newspaper’s style will vary greatly from a work of fiction or poetry. It’s the job of a copyeditor, with help from the authoritative guidance and advice found in style guides, to impose consistency and regularity on these patterns. That’s why style guides are invaluable to a serious copyeditor.

As a writer, you’ll want to know which style guide is most appropriate to your manuscript, and be sure that the editor you choose is comfortable with it. As a note: if you’re looking to employ an editor, be sure to inquire which style guides they’re familiar with, and which they employ in their daily work. If they don’t provide a thorough answer, they may not be professionally trained.

Here are a few of the most important style guides, organized by field, along with links to their most recent editions on Amazon, or the guide’s home page on the Web.

Newspapers and magazines: New York Times Manual of Style and Usage; Associated Press Stylebook

Scholarly publishing: Chicago Manual of Style (sciences and humanities); MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing (humanities); Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (social and behavioral sciences); AMA Manual of Style (medicine); ACS Style Guide (sciences)

Fiction and poetry: Chicago Manual of Style

Online publishing: Yahoo! Style Guide

Business: The Gregg Reference Manual; The Wall Street Journal Guide to Business Style and Usage; The Economist Style Guide

Post your thoughts about style guides in the comments. Do you have a burning curiosity about a language or grammatical issue? If so, submit a question!

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