How to Be a Better Writer With a Style Guide

4 min read

Have you ever wondered how to capitalize a book title, or how to write an address, or when to spell out a number? There are many ways you can write things, so how do you decide? Luckily for all of us, some pretty smart people already thought about most of these possible situations and put together a few handy style guides.

A style guide is a written guide for how to use words and punctuation and grammar. When you have multiple writers and editors working on a project, it’s useful to have one source of “truth” for how you’re going to write things.

The style guide you use depends on the type of writing you’re doing. News publications have different style guides from academic journals and creative writing. A publication may even have a personal style guide with rules that apply specifically to its own content. Let’s go over some of the most widely used style guides and their most common rules.

AP Style

The Associated Press (AP) Stylebook is most commonly used by news publications. AP style provides guidelines for punctuation, grammar, spelling, and language usage. The overall principles that guide these rules are consistency, clarity, accuracy, and brevity. Since it serves news organizations that provide information to a large population, it's crucial to avoid stereotypes and unintentionally offensive language.

To access the thousands of entries in the AP Stylebook, you can buy a hard copy of the book, or you can access it online at the AP Stylebook website.

If you want to write using AP style, here are some basic rules to get you started: (Source: AP Style | Purdue Writing Lab)

Ages

For ages, always use figures. If the age is used as an adjective or as a substitute for a noun, then it should be hyphenated. Don’t use apostrophes when describing an age range.

Examples:

A 23-year-old friend.

My friend is 23 years old.

The girl, 12, has a brother, 5.

The contest is for 16-year-olds.

He is in his 60s.

Books, Periodicals, Reference Works, and Other Types of Compositions

Use quotation marks around the titles of books, songs, television shows, computer games, poems, lectures, speeches, and works of art.

Examples:

Maya Angelou was honored for her book "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings."

We watch "Jeopardy" every night before dinner.

Do not use quotations around the names of magazines, newspapers, the Bible, or books that are catalogues of reference materials.

Examples:

The New York Times broke the story.

I read the Bible every morning.

Do not underline or italicize any of the above.

Names

Always use a person’s first and last name the first time they are mentioned in a story. Only use last names on second reference. Do not use courtesy titles such as Mr., Mrs., Miss, or Ms. unless they are part of a direct quotation or are needed to differentiate between people who have the same last name.

Numbers

Never begin a sentence with a figure, except for sentences that begin with a year.

Examples:

Three hundred doctors attended the conference.

2020 is an election year.

Use roman numerals to describe wars and to show sequences for people.

Examples:

World War II, Pope John Paul II, Elizabeth II.

For ordinal numbers, spell out "first" through "ninth," and use figures for "10th" and above when describing order in time or location (second base, 10th in a row). Some ordinal numbers, such as those indicating political or geographic order, should use figures in all cases (9th District Court, 4th ward).

For cardinal numbers, consult individual entries in the Associated Press Stylebook. If no usage is specified, spell out numbers below 10 and use numerals for numbers 10 and above.

Example:

My mother has six siblings and 14 grandchildren.

When referring to money, use numerals. For cents or amounts of $1 million or more, use the numeral and spell the words cents, million, billion, trillion, etc.

Examples:

$45.92, $300,000, $4 million, 32 cents.

Punctuation

Use a single space after a period.

Do not use commas before a conjunction in a simple series (AKA the Oxford comma).

Example:

We're having burgers, fries and fruit salad for dinner.

Commas and periods go within quotation marks.

Example:

"The elevator is broken," she said.

He warned, "The elevator is broken."

APA Style

American Psychological Association (APA) Style is primarily used for manuscripts from writers and students in the Social Sciences (such as Psychology, Linguistics, Sociology, Economics, and Criminology), Business, and Nursing. By using this established style, you’re using specific formatting to help your readers to find information.

APA style covers a broad range of considerations from page margin width to language choice and things to avoid. The basic rules of writing in APA style are guidelines to relate the results of your experiment in a clear and direct manner. APA style avoids passive voice and flowery language. For a full explanation of writing style, consult the The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association at your library, or look at an online resource like the Purdue Writing Lab.

Citation format is another important distinction of APA style. As a researcher, you need to credit all of your sources accurately, either with in-text citations or in footnotes. Take a look at the Purdue Writing Lab for examples of different types of citations.

Chicago Manual of Style

The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) is another academic style guide, most commonly concerned with citations. Two styles of citation are acceptable in CMOS: the notes and bibliography system and the author-date system. If you’re in the humanities, the notes and bibliography system is preferred. In this system, sources are cited using numbered footnotes and endnotes, and each note corresponds to a superscript number in the text. Then all of the sources are listed in a separate bibliography.

If you’re in the sciences and not using APA style, you might want to use the CMOS author-date system. Sources are briefly cited in the text with the author’s last name and year of publication in parentheses. The in-text citation matches up to a full bibliography.

For a full explanation of writing style within the Chicago Manual of Style, you can take a look at a hard copy at your library, or access it online.

Does that clear things up for you, or are you even more tempted to procrastinate on your next writing project? Don’t worry about memorizing all of these style rules. Just pick the style that is most appropriate for your project and pull up a good online guide. You’ll be following those style rules in no time.

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