Philip B. Corbett’s most recent  “After Deadline” column in the New York Times continues his review of changes to the paper’s style guide. Believe it or not, a lot of people pay close attention to the guide’s changes, and some decisions are pretty controversial in the language and usage world. Because the Times is considered a paper of record, its style choices are influential and authoritative.

Outside of the publishing world, most people aren’t familiar with style guides. If you’re generating any amount of published material, including websites, a style guide helps make your work more professional and elegant. Best of all, it reduces some of the decision fatigue that comes with writing and editing by defining much of the minutiae that goes into formatting a document. In just a sentence or two, for example, you might have to choose whether or not to use a serial comma; whether to spell out a state name, use a traditional abbreviation, or use a two-letter uppercase abbreviation; whether you can acceptably use impact as a verb; whether to use email or e-mail; and how to treat the title of an important executive. A good style guide will answer all those questions so you don’t even have to think about it and you don’t have to keep asking them over and over.

AP Stylebook and Chicago Manual of Style (14th edition)

Style Guides

A style guide is not a dictionary or grammar guide, though it may steer you toward good choices. Its purpose is to create clarity and consistency in all of the documents you produce. There are widely accepted style guides that you can use as a baseline; the two most used in non-specialized writing are the Associated Press Stylebook and The Chicago Manual of Style. Both are updated regularly (the 16th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style is the most recent). Most newspapers and popular magazines use AP style, while books and academic journals are more likely to use Chicago style. Press releases should almost always be written in AP style to minimize the amount of editing that a publication will have to do. Specialized professions often have their own stylebook, as do large corporations such as Microsoft.

If you’re producing a lot of documents or writing a book-length manuscript, an editor can help you develop a custom style sheet for the particularities of your work, in addition to recommending a standard style guide for most usage.