Your writing style includes your own unique voice, but once your manuscript is complete, you will need to adhere to a set of publishing standards of your choice. Style guides offer a set of guidelines for grammar, punctuation, and how different elements in a manuscript (hyphenated words, numerals, citations, etc.) are handled. Even more than that, a style guide helps you maintain consistency throughout your book, making it appear more professional.
Unless you are one of those people who have always colored inside the lines, you may, like many authors moving through the editing process, wonder, “Why in the world is a style guide important to my writing? Does it really matter?”
In a word, yes. Style guides are a critical element for professional writing.
There are certain style conventions that, when not followed, make your writing look and feel unprofessional to the average reader—even though they may not even be aware of it. You want to have every advantage possible when presenting your book to the world, so it makes sense to do what the pros do and follow a style guide.
There are three levels of style guides: a style sheet, a publisher style guide, and an exhaustive manual of style, like Chicago, AP, or MLA.
A style sheet is a short list that is specific to the manuscript you’re working on. For example, your style sheet for a book on interior design would indicate that all measurements are to be shown in numerals, rather than spelled out. A style sheet would follow a manuscript from editor to editor to make sure everyone is on the same page. This allows you to have consistency within creative control.
A publisher style guide is used by a publishing house to outline house rules that are specific standards for their authors and applies to all books under their imprint. One example is an educational publisher style guide, which would include items like hyphenation with grade level references or capitalization of academic titles (second-grade teacher vs. 2nd grade teacher, for instance).
An exhaustive manual of style is one that is used by an entire industry, like trade book publishing, academics, or psychology and the humanities. If you can remember back to your high school or college English writing class, you may remember the joys of preparing your term paper in MLA format!
Which style guide should you use?
If you are writing fiction or most nonfiction for a trade market, like most authors, you will likely follow The Chicago Manual of Style, but see below for the most common usage for each style manual.
Fiction and most nonfiction books: The Chicago Manual of Style
Journalism and writing for websites: The Associated Press Stylebook
Research papers, theses, and dissertations: The Turabian Style Guide
Academic writing, mostly in literature and the humanities: MLA Handbook: The Modern Language Association of America
Regardless of which style you use for your writing project, CONSISTENCY IS KEY. When in doubt, it is vital that you use consistent style throughout your book. “Coloring inside the lines” of your writing in this way not only provides a more professional look, but it also yields a much more palatable read. And best of all, your editors will love you!