Writers should each have their own style. We know this. Create your own voice, your own way of turning a phrase, and your own take on the subject at hand. But writing involves another kind of style too—the kind found in style manuals.
What is a style manual and why should you care about it? A style manual is a set of guidelines for the layout and presentation of your writing. Style manuals typically include everything from grammar and punctuation to the intricacies of citing sources to explanations of what information belongs on a copyright page. Although a writer may choose from any number of style manuals, the biggies are The Chicago Manual of Style, The Associated Press Stylebook, The MLA Style Manual, and the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. The titles are often abbreviated as Chicago, AP, MLA, and APA, respectively. My grad school instructors preferred the APA manual, but as a freelance writer, today I rely on Chicago. I also consult MLA for issues concerning reference citations.
Now we know what a style manual is. But why should writers care about them? If you’ve gone the traditional publishing route, you may feel that stylistic decisions are your editor’s problem. Yet submitting a professional, polished manuscript to your editor makes a better impression than sending in a manuscript full of punctuation errors and other blunders. Also, since every writer these days has a blog, ask yourself another question. Don’t you want your blog to look professional? If you’re self-published, then owning and using a style manual becomes even more important. Publishing a book that includes stylistic errors may sound like no big deal, but style manuals exist for a reason. Style guidelines provide consistency and encourage readability.
Independent book publishers and some magazines use Chicago style. Unless you’re a journalist, Chicago is the best bet. Don’t let the size of The Chicago Manual of Style intimidate you. Yes, it’s 1026 pages long. But you don’t need to memorize the entire book. Familiarize yourself with the sections that have the most relevance for your writing (e.g., grammar and punctuation). Though I’ve used Chicago style for years now, I still consult the book regularly. No one can remember every recommendation. That’s why we call it a reference book—you don’t memorize it, you refer to it!
You might say that readers don’t care about style manuals and won’t notice the errors anyway. First, whether they notice depends on how egregious the error is. Second, readers may not realize how many style decisions go into producing a book, but they will subconsciously feel the effects of a well-produced book. If your goal is to attract the attention of an agent or publisher, then applying professional style to your writing is essential. Most style decisions will, in time, become second nature.
How much do you need to shell out for a style manual? The print edition of the Chicago manual has a list price of $65 but generally sells at a substantial discount on Amazon. The online version costs $35 per year for an individual. Choose whichever version works best for you and make the investment. The cost of producing unprofessional, sloppy work outweighs the price of a good style manual.
Lisa A. Shiel writes about everything strange, from Bigfoot and UFOs to alternative history. As a fiction writer, Lisa developed the Human Origins Series, which includes the novels The Hunt for Bigfoot and Lord of the Dead and the forthcoming novel Ancient Ones. Her nonfiction books include Forgotten Tales of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Strange Michigan, and the award-winning Backyard Bigfoot. Lisa has a master’s degree in Library Science and previously served as president of the Upper Peninsula Publishers & Authors Association.
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