As an editor working primarily with U.S. English, the three main writing style guides I use are APA, CMOS, and MLA. APA stands for the American Psychological Association, the group that creates the guide officially called the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. CMOS stands for The Chicago Manual of Style, which is published by the University of Chicago. In addition to the acronym CMOS, the style guide is often simply called “Chicago.” Finally, MLA stands for the Modern Language Association, which is the group behind the MLA Handbook.
All three style guides are commonly use in academic and formal writing while CMOS also sees regular use by publishers specializing in fiction and nonfiction meant for general audiences. If I had to choose a favorite style guide, it would be CMOS.
MLA. In terms of their print versions, the MLA Handbook is the smallest guide, which is nice since it means that it’s highly portable. Its size also makes sense since MLA is often introduced to students in high school and at the beginning of their college careers. As a style guide, it’s meant to ease students into the rigors of academic writing without overburdening them lots of little details to remember. However, I often feel that MLA is a bit lacking as a style guide since it doesn’t address many basic topics and it can be difficult to find specific answers to common questions that come up in the course of writing.
What’s more, The MLA Style Center, the style guide’s official website, is not easy to navigate. In fact, I almost never consult the official website for matters of MLA style because of how difficult it is to quickly find answers to my topics of interest.
APA. Meanwhile, APA is a guide most often used with technical and scientific writing. The print version of the manual is a hefty volume at 270-odd pages. But the American Psychological Association also publishes a shortened version of the APA manual known as the Concise Rules of APA Style. Funnily enough, the shortened guide (at 284 pages long) is actually longer than the full guide, but the shortened version comes in a smaller size that is more portable. Because APA is most commonly associated with technical and scientific writing, the guide features many nitty-gritty details that don’t always seem logical and often require some memorization to get right.
Luckily, the APA Style Blog is an amazing resource. First, it’s easy to find articles on specific topics by using the site’s search box. Second, I often find the comments section at the end of an article to be just as valuable as the article itself since the blog’s contributors actually take the time to respond to people’s random and sometimes awfully specific questions.
CMOS. As I mentioned before, CMOS is used in academia across a wide spectrum of disciplines and by many major publishers of works meant for general audiences. Because of its widespread use, the print version of the guide is huge (over a thousand pages long) and covers an impressive variety of writing-related topics. I love that you can turn to CMOS with your specific question and likely find an answer to it. But in the same vein, I truly appreciate how the people behind the guide make it clear that CMOS is still just a writing style guide. At the end of the day, as the writer, editor, or other individual involved with a work, you should make your own assessment of what makes sense for the given situation.
Probably because the print version of CMOS is a visually intimidating tome, a lot of work has been put into making The Chicago Manual of Style Online a wonderful resource. Yes, you do have to pay a subscription fee to view the content on the Chicago Manual of Style Online, but note that by subscribing, you’re gaining access to full electronic copies of both the 16th and 17th editions of the guide. The website is incredibly easy to navigate, and its search function is spot on. Furthermore, the Q&A section and CMOS Shop Talk are two free resources that are worth exploring and provide plenty of information along with laughs. The people behind CMOS don’t consider themselves the gods on high when it comes to writing, and this comes through in their publications.
So having said all that, I’ll mostly be covering matters of style related to APA, CMOS, or MLA in my blog posts. Depending on the purpose of your writing, it’s likely that one style guide will be more appropriate for you than another. But if you’re in a situation where you’re simply looking for a writing style guide to follow, my default recommendation would be CMOS.
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If you’ve got a writing-related question, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll try to provide you with an answer or at least point you in the right direction, and I may even feature your question in a future blog post.