How to choose the right writing style for your purpose

29 April 2021Reading time: 4 min.

If you want your words to be taken seriously, you need to have a writing style that’s error-free and fit for purpose. There are different writing style guides to choose from, but all have their time and place. We’ll look at the best writing style guides, and give you tips to help you find the perfect guide.

When it comes to the rules of writing, the fact is that there’s no single definitive set of grammatical rules. However, there are several established writing style schools that come as close as possible to establishing a coherent set of rules for written communication. As a writer, you’ll have to deal with companies and editors with their own sets of rules. That’s why having a writing style in your repertoire is so important. Some writing style guides have been built up over decades and continue to be updated every year. Several guides have only appeared recently, to reflect the different ways we write in a world of digital communication and social media where a new writing style changer is necessary. A good writer knows which style guide is right for a given brief, so when an employer asks you to write about a specific topic, you’ll know what is expected of you. You may need to learn new so-called free spins. We’ll take a look at the leading writing styles you can use to make them more informative and authoritative when writing prose.

How to Find the Right Style for the Job

Your choice of writing style ideas should take into account the kind of project you’re working on, and the audience that you’ll be addressing when making a writing style comparison:

  • Corporate or house style: If you’re writing to specification for a client, business or publisher, start by asking your commissioning editor whether you’ll be expected to use a house writing style. This will provide you with a proprietary guide for writing or direct you to a guide with writing style examples relevant to the industry in question.
  • Medium and genre: Get to know which writing style guide is typical for the kind of writing you want to do. This will help you put together impressive manuscripts before being formally taken on by a publication and can give you something to fall back on if you find yourself employed by a company that doesn’t provide you with a house style.
  • Field or niche: Plenty of niche guides exist to help answer writing style questions for specific fields or cottage industries, particularly in areas of academic interest, such as chemistry or sociology. They’re also crucial for writing about technical disciplines in a coherent way.

The Most Essential Style Guides

Let’s look at the most prominent writing style guides that every professional writer should familiarize himself with. You can change your writing style as necessary from job to job. We’ll also list some more niche alternatives that you nevertheless might encounter from time to time.

Associated Press Style

The Associated Press style guide (commonly know as AP style) is employed in the majority of journalistic and news writing. It’s a very comprehensive tome that covers spelling, grammar, usage and punctuation. It’s also regularly updated with writing style descriptions for broader new stories and emerging cultural lexicons. As well as journalism, AP style is frequently employed for the majority of content marketing and blogging and is familiar to online writing style editors everywhere. The AP style book is regularly updated throughout the year to respond to changes in the annual news cycle. 

Chicago Manual of Style

Sometimes known as CMOS or the Chicago style guide, this style book has been published annually by the University of Chicago Press dating back to 1906, and an online edition exactly a century later in 2006. CMOS is primarily used to provide writing style help in academic and commercial publishing, and continues to be one of the most widely used writing style guides in the world. As well as grammar, spelling, and punctuation guidelines, it includes guidelines for formatting manuscripts and two different source citation formats. It’s the favored writing style for literary publishing and also features in some circles of humanities academia. The most recent edition was published in 2017, following a pattern of release roughly every seven years. 

Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association

Also known as the “Publication Manual, the APA style guide began its life in 1929 when a loose cadre of psychologists, business managers, and anthropologists published an editorial with writing style elements as psychology began to emerge as a new science. Since it’s first official publication as a style guide in 1952, seven further editions have been released, in addition to an online blog that started in 2009. Unsurprisingly, APA style typically encompasses writing for different scientific disciplines and how to make the content simpler to understand. As well as guidance for spelling, punctuation, and grammar, there are also guidelines how to use the signature in-text citation method, ethical principles for research publishing, and how to properly format academic submissions. APA style is employed by authors in humanities, social sciences, and medicine, along with certain schools of natural science. The latest edition of the APA style guide was released in 2019 and tends to get revised every ten years. 

MLA Handbook

The Modern Language Association of America first released its “MLA Style Sheet” in 1951. Since then, an updated MLA handbook has been published since 1977 and branched out online with the MLA Style Centre website since 2009. While the MLA style book carries some limited guidance for the mechanics of writing, it’s most known for its template for source citations. Academic writers heavily concerned with the mechanics of language and writing, such as literary theory and language learning, normally employ MLA writing style. You may often find it used by school students as an alternative to APA. So far, eight editions of the handbook have been released, with the last edition published in 2016. Revised editions are released roughly every three to five years. 

Alternative and Niche Style Guides

For a very specific subject or industry, you may need writing style guides that serve specific purposes or help articulate writing rules that the mainstream style guides don’t service. Many organizations and sectors have helped fill this gap by producing their own specialized writing style guides. These could be self-contained style guides, or simply exist to supplement the guidelines of one of the bigger editions. Some popular alternative style guides include:

  • BuzzFeed Style Guide: While it may have been conceived with a sense of irony, the writing style guide from the online media trendsetters has emerged as something of an authority on the particulars of proper social media writing. It’s also become an authority for establishing new terms of inclusive language. 
  • The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage: A supplementary writing style guide designed to be used in tandem with the AP style book.
  • Diversity Style Guide: San Francisco State University’s Center for Integration and Improvement of Journalism takes submissions from several minority advocacy groups to help build up a reference guide for preferred terms and inclusive language. The guide covers different ethnicities, religions, abilities, genders, and more.
  • Conscious Style Guide: Another writing style guide to help with representation, framing, and use of language to ensure inclusivity and respect for audiences.
  • GLAAD Media Reference: A writing style guide to offer advice for the coverage of LGBTQ topics and gender and sexuality more broadly.

How to Best Use a Writing Style Guide

Not many writers will have a style guide fully memorized in the back of their heads. The main thing to take into account is knowing when to reach for your style guide. By familiarizing yourself with the variation amongst styles and when to deploy their guidance, you’ll find the whole process much more efficient. Some writing style devices to check include:

  • Header capitalization
  • Citation rules
  • Punctuation
  • Use of numbers
  • Compound words
  • Acronyms and abbreviations
  • Format guidelines
  • Technical terminology
  • Brand names
  • Inclusive and respectful language

Don’t Stray From Your Guide When Possible

If you find yourself in a position to help craft or edit a company’s internal writing style guide, pick one of the preeminent guides like Chicago or AP as your foundation and stay with it where possible. Other editors and writers you deal with will most likely be knowing terms with the main style guides, but if you’ve established a whole new set of rules and guidelines, then that will mean a lot more time and energy needs to be spent getting new writers up to speed. Plus, it leaves a lot more opportunities for you to leave errors in your own work.

Don’t Fret Over Minute

If you’re aware of the fundamental principles of a style guide and where editorial preference will come into play, then you don’t need to spend all your time agonizing over the smallest details of style particulars. Your work gets submitted to editors for a reason, and they will be there to catch small errors so you can focus on crafting the content you’ve been commissioned to make.

Conclusion: Find the Right Style for Your Words

Knowing when and how to correctly implement a writing style raises the value of your work and helps you create tight copy that leaves your editors with less work to do. It also helps you improve your control of the written word and will give you a better grasp of your craft. Do you have a preferred style guide? Or maybe you think there’s one we left out? Let us know in the comment section below.

This article was written by

Ellen Royce

Ellen Royce

Ellen Royce is an experienced marketer, copywriter, and entrepreneur. Having started several small businesses online, she knows the importance of effective content marketing in building companies.

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