Word Play: A Guide to Choosing a Publisher’s Style Guide

Word Play is a series for the Grammar Police, former English Majors, Word Nerds, pedants and people who are curious about the evolution of language, grammar, standardization, style and prose. Be warned: this series will get very political. Red ink may bleed.

Since the beginning of publishing, there have been associations and groups of people coming up with arbitrary rules declaring that this is the way you should cite photos, write things in a list, credit sources, not that other way. That’s why there are dozens of official style guides.

Style guides are very useful as they are one be-all source for uniformed style and formatting across multiple documents. It’s rather essential for certain industries and companies to use style guides. Journalism uses AP, academics use Chicago Style or APA, students will use MLA, lawyers use Bluebook and then whatever their chosen field uses. And then there are companies with their own style guides, like The New York Times Manual Guide or The Business Style Handbook that you only have to worry about if you work for that company.

Which one is for you? Let’s review some of the familiar ones (with some humor, of course).

AP Style

Journalists know that using the Associated Press Style is pretty essential in order to get any kind of job (or what’s left of them. Welcome to the freelancer age). Like other style guides, its practices are designed to prevent plagiarism, but AP Style outlines how to write numbers, names, dates, abbreviations, etc. AP Style guide is reviewed annually, as to stay up to date with the youngins’. If you are a news site, you pretty much need to be familiar with this.


The style guide you learn as a 12 year old for your humanities classes stands for Modern Language Association Style. MLA is usually taught first so students will understand how not to plagiarize (insert joke about copying and pasting from the internet). MLA guidelines say no to footnotes (and yes to parenthetical). Often, it’s only used in academics, so it might look weird citing your sources (Steck).

Chicago Style

The Chicago Manual of Style was created by the University of Chicago Press in 1906 for everyone who wanted proper representation in the Midwest. It requires an extra title page (even though 1906 was the beginning of President Roosevelt’s conservation efforts) and uses footnotes. The footnotes are great for manuscripts, data and publishing research efforts and for adding little asides. They are also found on the web.


American Psychological Association should never be confused AP Style. APA Style mainly deals with the social sciences, which are often covered in liberal arts degrees that may be on the way out in terms of worth (but contradicting studies say liberal arts graduates do better in the long term). Regardless, APA Style is frequently seen in political and psychology publications.

Choose Your Own Adventure

What if none of these appeal to you? Or parts of the guide does and does not? Well, time to make your own style guide for your publication. As you begin to gain more site visitors (and more importantly people who spend loads of time on the site) and maybe more writers, you’ll want an easy to read style guide that teaches them your preferred format.

At every single company I have worked for in a writing capacity, they have given me a style guide to look over. Some adhere to the AP Style, some do not, some are hybrids. Some use the AP Style for news reports and use their in-house one for features.

For those of you looking to create your own guide, here’s a walkthrough of what you need to include:

Everything You Need to Include in a Style Guide

By Emily E. Steck

Every publication, company and writer needs a style guide. For consistency's sake, here's what absolutely needs to be included.

  • Mission Statement

    By Emily E. Steck

    Know the purpose of the style guide. Write a general mission statement and give general notes to your writers and guest writers here for general consistency.

  • General Aesthetics

    By Emily E. Steck

    No one likes a block of text– or maybe you do! If you allow bullet points, how are they formatted? Fragments or sentences? Capitalized or lowercase? What about verb tense? 

  • Headlines, Titles and Subtitles

    By Emily E. Steck

    Set the rules for capitalization. Set the rules for subtitles. Make a rule that everything is optimized for SEO (it will help you later). 

  • Images

    By Emily E. Steck

    You'll especially want to credit the high-resolution image, but everyone has a different way. It could be "Image Credit: author via source" or "Flickr: Author." Always include a link to the source.

  • Citations

    By Emily E. Steck

    Blogs are generally informal with a link and in line reference, but maybe you'll want to use footnotes. Make your citation requirements clear.

  • Standardize Dates, Times, Places, Acronyms

    By Emily E. Steck

    Pick a method and stick to it. Dates should be Wed. not Wednesday or vice versa. If someone references a place, how should they abbreviate? Do they need to spell out the acronym first? 

  • Punctuation

    By Emily E. Steck

    [Are you pro-Oxford comma or not?](http://blog.quiet.ly/word-play-2/the-debate-about-oxford-commas/) What about semicolons? Em dashes? Possessives? But whatever you decide on standardizing punctuation, please: no[ double space after periods.](http://blog.quiet.ly/word-play-2/double-space-after-periods/)

  • Italics

    By Emily E. Steck

    Consider how you'll format books, movies, TV series, newspaper titles. Hint: italics work for all of these. Also, specify how you would like italics to be used. Sparingly? Excessively? 

  • Spelling

    By Emily E. Steck

    It sounds silly, but if you employ writers from all over the world, you'll still need to decide upon Canadian, British or American English and become specific. Theater vs. theatre, colour vs. color.

  • No-Nos

    By Emily E. Steck

    It can include things that are off brand, but should generally include misleading headlines and facts, all caps use for the entire article and plagiarism. Curse words can also be on here.

Image Credit: David Cory via Flickr


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