What is a style guide?
A style guide is a document or book that specifies how a manuscript should be formatted. There are a lot of them, and you may be familiar with some.
- The Chicago Manual of Style
- The Associated Press (AP) Stylebook
- The Modern Language Association (MLA) Handbook
- The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) style
- The American Medical Association (AMA) style
- Garner's Modern English Usage
- The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White ("Strunk and White")
It might cover things such as when you should use abbreviations, how to cite references, how you should refer to a person’s title or style (Mr., Mrs. Her Majesty), how to use punctuation marks, when to use words to spell out numbers and when to use digits, how to format manuscripts, and all kinds of other mechanical details for your work.
Many companies have developed a brand style guide that discusses writing style, document formatting, which colors to use, and other brand-specific issues. It outlines a set of standards used in preparing communication and marketing material so that that all company writing has a brand voice or look and feel that is on-brand and on-message.
Many publishers, including book, newspaper, and magazine houses, also have their own editorial style guides that specify how their products should be formatted.
If you’re a fiction writer, you can even create your own writing style guide as part of your story bible or notes, to help you publish consistent, easy-to-read books.
Why do I care?
It’s important to stay consistent in your manuscript about how you present information to readers. Consistency is key to understanding, and while there's no one right way to do anything in English, every writer should be consistent to minimize reader confusion.
In fiction, a common abuse of style is with italics.
There is no absolutely right way to use italics in fiction, and hot debate rages whenever the topic pops up. Some say that you shouldn’t use italics at all, while others say it’s perfectly fine to use them whenever the need arises.
V.E. Griffith is a proponent of the “one way” rule.
If you’re going to use italics in your manuscript, use them for exactly one thing. Do not use them for multiple things.
For example, if you’re a writer who shows a character’s internal thoughts, you might choose to use italics to emphasize and set them off from regular prose. On the other hand, you can do this just like you do dialogue except without quotation marks. The reader will very quickly get used to either style, but will get confused if you mix styles or do it inconsistently.
Often, writers will use italics for multiple things. They’ll use them for character thought, for emphasis in dialogue, and for words in a foreign or made-up language. Such mixing of use can confuse a reader, and in some circles, this should be avoided.
A style guide, even if it’s just one you create on the fly as you write, will help you keep it all consistent. Being consistent from the beginning helps eliminate mistakes, confusion, and formatting errors as you get closer to publication.
What style guide should I use?
Which one you use depends on what you’re writing and your needs. There’s no hard and fast rule.
When editing fiction, V.E. Griffith generally uses the Chicago Manual of Style, 17th Edition (2017). It’s comprehensive and provides good, solid guidance on general usages of English that work well in fiction. He also consults Garner's Modern English Usage 5th Edition (2022) in many cases.
The APA Stylebook is usually used in journalistic contexts. It encourages brevity, which is important in contexts where paper is expensive and word count and column inches are critical.