What Are the Top Writing Style Guides?

Working on a paper? Writing for a blog like EditorNinja’s? Maybe you have a large dissertation or thesis due. Chances are, you’ve been told to adhere to a specific style guide, like AP or MLA. 

What is a style guide? A style guide tells writers how to cite their sources, format their pieces, and so much more. 

According to the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL), style guides

“include a wide range of rules and guidelines for works in their respective fields, from grammar and language use to the font and size of headings in a work. Generally, style manuals include everything a writer needs to know in order to make their work look and read just like every other work written in that style — the look of the page, the way other authors are referenced in the body of the work, and even the tone of the writing.”

In general, your field of study will determine which style guide you use, but your educational program, business, publisher, or teacher has the final say.

So, what are the top writing style guides? Let’s take a look.

The Top Writing Style Guides

There are many style guides, and the top style guides include AP, APA, MLA, Chicago, and AMA.

  • AP— Associated Press
    • Used primarily in journalism and news writing.
  • APA— American Psychological Association
    • Most commonly used in academic writing within the social and behavioral sciences. 
  • MLA— Modern Language Association
    • Primarily used in humanities disciplines like literature, philosophy, history, and the arts. 
  • Chicago — The Chicago Manual of Style
    • Used in books and academic journals, particularly within the humanities and social sciences.
  • AMA — American Medical Association
    • Used in medical research and healthcare writing.

Notice that there’s some overlap. Works in the social sciences, for instance, may use APA or Chicago, depending on the specific publisher or academic program. Similarly, publications and academic departments in the arts and humanities may use Chicago or may use MLA. Always be sure to check with your teacher, department, or publisher.

Each style provides guidelines for formatting documents and citing sources. Let’s look at each one individually.

AP — Associated Press

AP style — not to be confused with APA Style —  is the style guide put forth by the Associated Press. It is primarily used in journalism and news writing. It provides grammar, punctuation, spelling, and usage guidelines to ensure clarity and consistency in news reporting.

Here are some specific situations where AP style is used:

  • Newspapers: Most major newspapers in the United States and many around the world use the AP style as their standard guide for writing news articles, editorials, and captions.
  • News websites and online publications: Many online news outlets follow AP style to maintain consistency and professionalism in their reporting.
  • Press releases: Public relations professionals often use the AP style when writing press releases to ensure their information is clear and easily understood by journalists who might follow the AP style.
  • Broadcast journalism: While some variations might exist, broadcast news organizations often adhere to AP style principles for consistency and clarity in scripts and on-air reporting.

AP Style Key Features

Here are some of AP Style’s key guidelines:

Headline Writing:

  • Provides specific guidelines for crafting clear, informative headlines that accurately reflect the story.
  • Has title case guidelines, but uses sentence case for headlines — that is, only the first word and proper nouns are capitalized.

Numbers and Dates:

  • Spells out numbers one through nine, using numerals for 10 and above.
  • Expresses percentages as numerals followed by “percent.”
  • Uses numerals for ages and dollar amounts.
  • Prefers numerals for dates, omitting “th” after the date (e.g., June 29, 2024).

Abbreviations and Acronyms:

  • Encourages writers to define abbreviations and acronyms upon first use in an article.
  • Offers guidance on which states can be abbreviated (e.g., Fla. for Florida) and which should be spelled out.

Titles:

  • Generally, job titles are capitalized when appearing before a person’s name but are lowercase after the name or when used generically.
  • Uses quotation marks for titles of short works (articles, essays, songs) and italics for longer works (books, films, plays).

Punctuation:

  • Offers specific guidelines for comma usage, hyphenation, and semicolon placement.
  • Avoids unnecessary punctuation that might hinder readability.
  • Does not use the serial comma (the “Oxford comma”).

APA — American Psychological Association

APA style, also known as the American Psychological Association style, is most commonly used in academic writing within the social and behavioral sciences. It provides guidelines for formatting research papers, essays, and other academic documents to ensure clarity, consistency, and proper citation of sources.

Here are some specific situations where APA style is used:

  • Psychology: Research papers, case studies, and reports in psychology heavily rely on APA style for formatting and citation.
  • Education: Education research, dissertations, and theses often follow APA style for consistent presentation and source referencing.
  • Sociology: Similarly, sociological research papers and academic writing typically adhere to APA style for formatting and citations.
  • Other Social Sciences: Fields like anthropology, communication, and social work also frequently utilize APA style for academic writing.
  • Business Schools: While less common than in core social sciences, some business schools might require APA style for research papers or specific assignments.

APA Style Key Guidelines

Here are some of APA style’s key features:

Structure and Formatting:

  • Double-spaced text: Ensures readability and allows for easy insertion of comments or edits.
  • Specific margins: Consistent margins (typically 1 inch) create a professional and organized appearance.
  • Organized sections: Clear headings and subheadings separate different sections of the paper (Introduction, Method, Results, Discussion, References).
  • Title page format: Prescribed format for the title page, including title, author information, affiliation, and date.
  • Running head: Shortened title and page number appear at the top of each page for easy reference.

Citations and Referencing:

  • Author-date system: Uses the author’s last name and year of publication within the text to reference sources.
  • Reference list: Provides complete bibliographic information for all cited sources in a specific format (author, date, title, publication information).
  • In-text citations for different source types: Specific guidelines exist for citing books, journal articles, websites, and other sources within the text.

Language and Style:

  • Formal and objective language: Avoids personal opinions or biases, focusing on factual information and analysis.
  • Third-person perspective: Emphasizes using the third person (he, she, it, they) for a more objective tone.
  • Active voice preferred: Encourages using the active voice instead of passive voice. For example, “The participants completed the task” instead of “The task was completed by the participants.”
  • Operational definitions: Defines key terms specific to the research study to ensure clarity and understanding.

MLA — Modern Language Association

MLA style, also known as the Modern Language Association style, is primarily used in humanities disciplines for formatting research papers, essays, and other academic documents.

Here’s a breakdown of when MLA style is typically used:

  • English Literature: Research papers, essays, and critical analyses in English literature heavily rely on MLA style for formatting and citation.
  • Foreign Languages: Similar to English literature, research papers and essays on foreign languages often use MLA style for consistency.
  • Writing Studies: MLA style might be utilized in academic writing related to the writing field, such as essays on rhetoric or composition theory.
  • Other Humanities Fields: Disciplines like history, philosophy, religious studies, arts, and cultural studies may also use MLA style, depending on the specific program or instructor’s preference.

I have my Master’s degree in Shakespeare and Performance, which is grouped under the arts and humanities. The papers I wrote throughout my study and my final thesis were all formatted in MLA.

MLA Style Key Features

Here are some of the key guidelines of MLA Style:

Formatting and Presentation:

  • Double-spaced text: Ensures readability and allows for easy edits or annotations.
  • Standard margins: Consistent margins (typically 1 inch) create a professional appearance.
  • Heading format: Specific format for titles, subtitles, and subheadings with consistent indentation.
  • No title page: Unlike APA style, MLA does not require a separate title page. The title, author information, course information, and date are typically placed at the beginning of the document.
    • However, individual programs usually require a separate title page for longer documents, like dissertations.
  • Page numbering: Arabic numerals are placed in the upper right corner of each page.

Citations and Referencing:

  • Parenthetical citations: Uses the author’s last name and page number(s) within parentheses in the text to reference sources.
  • Works Cited page: A separate page at the end of the document lists all sources cited in the paper, following a specific format (author, title, and publication information).
  • Guidelines for different source types: Specific guidelines exist for citing books, journal articles, websites, and other sources in the Works Cited page.

Language and Style:

  • Formal and clear language: Avoids slang, informal language, or contractions for a professional tone.
  • Present tense for literature analysis: When analyzing literary works, MLA encourages using the present tense to discuss characters, themes, and ongoing relevance. For example, if you were writing about Romeo and Juliet, you would say “Romeo kisses Juliet” (present tense), not “Romeo kissed Juliet” (past tense).

Chicago — The Chicago Manual of Style

Chicago style — it’s not just a pizza! The Chicago Manual of Style is a style guide primarily used in publishing and editing, particularly in the humanities and social sciences. It offers a comprehensive guide for formatting manuscripts, documenting sources, and ensuring clarity and consistency in various written works.

Here’s a breakdown of the primary situations where Chicago is used:

  • Book Publishing: From scholarly monographs to novels and trade books, Chicago is a widely respected and used style guide in the book publishing industry.
  • Academic Journals: Many academic journals within humanities and social sciences rely on Chicago for formatting research articles, essays, and footnotes/bibliographies.
  • History: Historical writing, dissertations, and research papers often utilize Chicago for consistent formatting and source citation.
  • Other Humanities and Social Sciences: Fields like philosophy, art history, religious studies, and anthropology might also use Chicago, depending on the specific program or publication’s requirements.

Chicago is known for its detailed and specific guidelines, making it a valuable resource for editors, publishers, and researchers who need precise formatting rules.

Chicago Manual of Style Key Features

Below are some of the key guidelines for Chicago style.

Formatting and Presentation:

  • Double-spaced text: The standard for most content, but single-spacing can be used in specific sections like bibliographies.
  • Varied margins: This may depend on the publisher’s requirements, but 1-inch margins are common.
  • Heading styles: Different heading levels with specific formatting for titles, subtitles, and subheadings.
  • Endnotes/footnotes vs. author-date: Offers two main citation systems: endnotes/footnotes for detailed information within the text or an author-date system for in-text citations and a reference list. (See below.)

Citations and Referencing:

  • Detailed source information: Emphasis on providing complete and accurate bibliographic information for all cited sources.
  • Two citation methods:
    • Notes-bibliography system: Uses endnotes/footnotes within the text to reference sources, with a corresponding bibliography at the end listing full bibliographic details.
    • Author-date system: Uses the author’s last name and year of publication within the text for citations, with a separate reference list containing full source information.
  • Specific guidelines for diverse source types: Detailed instructions on citing books, journal articles, websites, and other sources in the chosen citation system.

Language and Style:

  • Formal and precise language: Encourages clear and professional language, avoiding ambiguity or informality.
  • Active voice preferred: Similar to APA and MLA, using the active voice promotes clarity and conciseness.

AMA — American Medical Association

AMA style, also known as the American Medical Association Manual of Style, reigns supreme in medical research and healthcare writing. It provides a specific set of guidelines for formatting research papers, clinical studies, journal articles, and other documents in the medical field.

Here are the primary situations where AMA style is used:

  • Medical Journals: Most medical journals require authors to adhere to the AMA style for formatting research articles, including in-text citations, reference lists, and manuscript structure.
  • Medical Research: Research proposals, dissertations, and reports within the field of medicine heavily rely on AMA style for consistency and clarity in presenting findings.
  • Healthcare Communication: Some healthcare institutions or organizations might use the AMA style for formatting clinical reports, patient education materials, or other written communications within the healthcare setting.
  • Life Sciences: Research papers and reports in fields like biology, public health, and nursing sometimes utilize the AMA style, particularly if the research involves collaboration with medical professionals.

AMA Style Key Features

Here are some key characteristics of AMA style:

Structure and Formatting:

  • Double-spaced text: Similar to other academic styles, ensures readability and allows for edits.
  • Standard margins: Consistent margins (typically 1 inch) create a professional appearance.
  • Organized sections: Clear headings separate different sections (Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion, References).
  • Title page format: Prescribed format for the title page, including title, author information, affiliation, and date.
  • Abstract: A concise summary of the research is often required.
  • Numbered references: In-text citations use a numbered system referring to a numbered reference list at the end.

Citations and Referencing:

  • Numbered reference list: Sources are listed at the end with corresponding numbers used for in-text citations.
  • Specific format for references: Detailed guidelines exist for formatting references based on the type of source (journal article, book, website, etc.).
  • Emphasis on accuracy: Given the critical nature of medical research, accurate citation of sources is essential to avoid plagiarism and ensure verifiability.

Language and Style:

  • Formal and objective language: Focuses on factual information and analysis, avoiding subjective opinions or biases.
  • Active voice preferred: Similar to other styles, active voice is preferred over passive voice. For example, “The participants completed the study” instead of “The study was completed by the participants.”
  • Technical terminology: Medical terms are often used, but defining them for a broader audience might be necessary.

Choosing the Right Style Guide

The style guide you follow is largely determined by your field of study or the subject of your writing. If you’re writing within the arts and humanities, you’ll likely use MLA or Chicago. If you’re writing about science, it’s a good bet you’ll want to use APA. 

But remember, you should always check with your publisher or instructor. They have the final say and may have specific guidelines unique to them. 

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