Expanding our writing tool box: Using style guides

Every time somebody inquires about my major, I am reminded of the general public’s view of writing.

The moment I announce that I am pursuing a degree in written communication, I am faced with one of three responses:

  • “You must be crazy. Why would you want to do something like that to yourself?”
  • Groan. “I don’t even want to think about writing—yet alone majoring in it!”
  • “That just sounds awful.” 

Such responses reinforce the misconception that writing is a horrid, terrifying form of torture used to elicit pain and suffering from students and professionals. I often wonder where these thoughts come from. What could have possibly happened to have led people to believe that writing is not only a burden, but a task that should be avoided at all costs?

Given, writing can be challenging at times. Writers who strive for perfection—or at the very least—thoughtfulness and clarity, can understand the detailed challenges of diction, syntax, and addressing a specific audience.

Source: Your Dictionary

Source: Your Dictionary

However, here’s a little secret. From one writer to another…

Writing doesn’t have to be difficult. It doesn’t have to be impossible to navigate, or dreadful to experience. 

There are resources available to make the art of writing more manageable. Among my favorite writing resources are style guides, which detail exactly how a text should be written and formatted.

Because every writing style has a different purpose, each one has its own quirks and rules for application. Now, I know what some of you may be thinking. Great. More rules to learn—as if there weren’t already enough. 

The beauty of a style guide, however, is its ability to preserve relevant knowledge in a way that is both manageable and navigable. We don’t have to know everything there is to know about the AP, MLA, APA, or Chicago styles of writing. Why? Because each of them has a style guide that allows us to clarify only the information we do not understand.

It is important to realize that style guides contain a wealth of knowledge and information for writers. Yet, without understanding how to efficiently use a style guide, that reference material is only so helpful. (Not very).

Here are four tips to help you effectively navigate and utilize the next style guide you encounter:

Familiarize yourself with the table of contents. Looking through the table of contents of any style guide allows you to accomplish an important task. It helps you understand the overall organization of the book, or in the case of an online style guide, the organization of its webpage. It can be helpful to see which sections of information are paired together, and the order in which they are presented. This information, though it may seem insignificant, allows you to critically consider the location within a style guide that is most likely to contain the information you are looking for.  

Skim through the material. While the table of contents can give you an overall idea of what is included within a style book, flipping through the pages can provide significant insight into the material discussed between a style guide’s covers. When I first bought my AP Stylebook, I flipped through about half of its pages—just looking for the types of things that AP style differentiates between. Now, when I am unsure of which word to use, or how to structure a statement, I might think to myself: “I noticed that the style guide talked about time zones, it most likely has a rule about daylight saving time, too. I’ll check the index.” I don’t have to know everything that is inside a style guide, but knowing the types of things that are covered helps me to use my stylebook effectively. The more you use your style guide, the easier it will be to navigate the material inside.

Read the examples. Examples are included in style guides for a reason. They are available so that users have a sample from which to model their own work. For example, when I first learned how to cite sources in MLA format, it was not helpful for me to read a lengthy paragraph describing how to cite a particular source. Instead, I learned this material by examining sample citations, and modeling my work off the examples presented in the style guide.

Don’t be afraid to take notes. Just like a well-used novel, a style guide is not expected to look brand-new. It is okay to highlight sections that seem important, or add extra examples in the margins. Personally, I use Post-it tabs to mark the sections to which I often find myself referring. I may not remember the exact page in my AP stylebook that discusses the difference between “people” and “persons,” but I can easily spot the neon orange tab that marks its place.

Natasha Wickenheiser
EMU Student
Guest Blogger


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