15 April 2021

Style Guides & Nonfiction Writers | Part 1 of 3


 Writer Resource Series


Herring boats Fish Quay North Shields c.1890 

A quick online search about nonfiction writers and style guides brings back a boatload of hits. [1] Many of the articles retrieved discuss how to write a nonfiction book and much of the info provided is useful. But if you are not familiar with style guides--except perhaps from your college paper-writing days where you were graded down because you misplaced a comma in a citation, or worse, were accused of plagiarism--you might be wondering why style guides matter and how to use them successfully.

One bit of advice I've read on some of these sites is to "pick a style." Or you get a checklist of how to write nonfiction and way down in the checklist it says "choose your style guide." How do you do that? And how do you know which one to use?

Depending on who publishes your work, it is very likely a specific style guide will be used. So it helps if you find that out before you start writing. Ask! It may happen that it doesn't matter, in which case you want to use a guide that best matches your subject matter.

 Covers of the 9th edition of the MLA Style Guide, the 17th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style, and the 7th edition of The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association

Here are where the main three tend to be used.

  • APA Style
    (aka The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association)
    • Social sciences
    • Humanities
    • Health care
    • some natural sciences
  • Chicago
    (aka The Chicago Manual of Style; CMOS)
    • Preferred by fiction and nonfiction publishers
    • Humanities  
    • Book authors (CMOS was originally a guide for scholarly authors)
  • MLA
    (aka MLA Handbook)
    • Humanities
    • Language Studies 
    • Literary Criticism

So what exactly is a style guide? A style guide (or style manual) is a writing tool. Just that, no more no less. It's not a sacred text. It's just that, a guide.

Technically, a style guide is a formal set of standards use for the writing of documents, usually nonfiction, scholarly or academic, or the like. These guides are created by publishers and professional associations for the material they publish under their name or organizational auspices. Style guides typically cover two areas: editorial style and citation and documentation style. And while not all, many of the most often used guides (MLA, Chicago, and APA) also include solid info on how to write. All three areas are a real goldmine for the nonfiction writer.

Image of an old time woodcut of a newspaper writer or editor wearing a visor cap while writing on sheets of paper with a dip pen. A hanging lamo lights the surface. A young copy boy stands in the background.

Editorial style
covers spelling, punctuation, capitalization, abbreviations, the selection of headings, and the use of numbers. Good editorial style means you are being consistent with all of these throughout your work. FYI: Editorial style is also referred to as editorial guidelines or simply conventions (because they represent a conventional presentation used in publishing by a particular group (i.e., publisher, association, etc.)

For any writer, but especially nonfiction writers, avoiding plagiarism is key. A good writer, of any stripe, is an ethical writer. Using someone else's ideas or words ethically means you do it correctly and you cite the source. This shows you not only are honoring the copyright, you are honoring the other person's intellectual and creative work.

In a sense, when you use someone's ideas or words you are conversing with them. And by sharing that with your readers, you are welcoming them into the conversation as well. This is where Citation and Documentation Style comes into play. These guidelines help you consistently format the information about the people you are talking with or about (i.e., your sources). You note them in the text and then your provide a list of sources at the end of your work.

Image of different media sources along side a sample paragraph with an arrow that shows an in-text citation within the text.

Here's where a lot of writers get anxious--probably because they got negative feedback somewhere along the way for "getting it wrong." It might help if we understand why citation matters, beyond that crucial ethical and professional concern of honoring the work of others. It's a logistical thing. You want your readers to be able to find the source you are talking about. A correctly formatted citation means they can.

The purpose of any style guide is to provide uniformity in your writing, in your citations, and in formatting your final document. The goal is make sure your paper is professional and readable.

Three style guides often used--MLA, APA, and Chicago--provide sample template pages so you don't have to figure it out on your own.

By the way, if you are asked to provide a list of your sources for your nonfiction work, Microsoft Word has this support page that states:"Word automatically generates a bibliography from the sources you used. . . ." It covers MLA, Chicago, and APA style and shows you how to set that up.

Part 2 (coming soon): Understanding How a Style Guide Works

Part 3 (coming soon): Using the Writing Advice in Style Guides


Writer Resource Series is my new column for writers of fiction and nonfiction. I'll be drawing on my background as a writing instructor, English teacher, academic librarian, and educational technology consultant to provide general information, insights, and DIY writing fixes.

[1] Here is the search statement I tried (in Google): (non-fiction OR "non fiction") AND "Style guide*"  If you try it, type it exactly this way!

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