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What are Style Guidelines, and Why are They Important?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Style guidelines are precise directions for how language should be used and are an important tool for writers. Famous examples include the Chicago Manual of Style and the Associated Press Stylebook, but individual companies, institutions, and organizations also have their own guidelines. Style guidelines are extremely important because they lay out the desired format for a piece of written communication. By following them, the writer will produce a polished, professional piece of writing which meets the requirements of the organization the writer is working for.

Commonly, style guidelines include grammar conventions. This is especially important with languages like English, in which several grammatical forms may be technically correct. By indicating how things such as quotes and citations should be written, consistency is ensured. For example, some guidelines will clearly dictate how measurements, dates, and numbers should be presented. A good style guide will also indicate how things should be spelled, and which regional dialect is appropriate for the writing. For example, many American style guidelines indicate that American spellings should be used for words like color, theater, and recognize, rather than the British spellings, which can be unfamiliar and confusing for American readers.

Usually, style guidelines also dictate the overall tone and content of a work as well. The level of formality required in a piece of writing is typically indicated, which will also inform the writer whether or not profanity and controversial topics are acceptable. Tone requirements vary widely not only from industry to industry, but also within a field, as a comparison of the style guides for the New York Times and Washington Post reveal. Each organization has developed its own style, which contributes to the unique style of the newspaper, and readers have come to expect pieces which conform to these parameters. Copy editors are responsible for ensuring that authors stay within the guidelines.

For professionalism, style guidelines are crucial. In newspapers, encyclopedias, dictionaries, and other documents which require contributions from large numbers of writers, these rules help keep the work consistent, so that readers are not jarred by personal stylistic choices which may vary. In the academic world, they help to enforce clear discipline and also allow students to show that they can follow directions clearly. While style guidelines may seem onerous at times, following dictated guidelines as a writer can impress an audience, and may make the difference between success and failure as a writer.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By nony — On Nov 04, 2011

@allenJo - Tone is an important part of style, too, but I sometimes wonder about how strict the guidelines are at some newspaper publications.

While newspaper articles tend to report facts in a straight up manner, now and then I detect a bit of editorializing – or bias if you will – in the piece.

I don’t know how hard and heavy the style guidelines come down on that. I’m sure they stipulate that editorials are for the opinion page and articles need to be written in standard journalistic form, free of any hint of editorializing.

However, I think some subtle violations of official newspaper policy do creep into a few articles here and there, be it the slightest turn of a phrase or a figure of speech that puts a certain spin on the facts.

By allenJo — On Nov 03, 2011

@David09 - I agree that it can be time-consuming, but ironically the Internet has made things easier too.

Just limit your research to sites that you know can be easily cited. You can use things like EBSCO host to do your research; most of the articles there are from professional publications, and I think they even show you the style format for the citation.

In addition, there are some tools online that will do the citation for you. These websites will ask you to plug in the necessary information about your source, choose what kind of online source it is, and then instantly the program will create the citation for you.

You can choose an APA reference format or an MLA format, it’s up to you. These tools make creating citations a lot easier and drastically cut down on the time it takes to finish the research paper.

By David09 — On Nov 02, 2011

@julies - While I appreciate the necessity of style guidelines and their role in ensuring consistency of all pieces written for a publication, I would like to second the motion of the article’s reference to “onerous.”

Accurately creating the bibliographical and footnote citations almost took as much time for me as writing my college paper, at least that’s the way it felt.

It seemed that there were hundreds of different kinds of sources that you could cite and each one of them had their own style and standard. The advent of the Internet didn’t make that easier, because not all sources could be neatly defined as fitting one of the different templates for Internet sites – whether an online magazine, an encyclopedia entry, or whatever.

The good news is that the style guides were a little more forgiving of Internet citations. “Cite whatever information is available,” was the dominant principle.

By julies — On Nov 02, 2011

I think one of the most advantageous things about having style guidelines is the consistency they provide.

When someone is reading any kind of article or information, you expect a certain sense of style. Many times you are not even aware of it until an article is poorly written or has a lot of misspelled words.

When I was taking a college literature class, all of our papers had to follow MLA style guidelines, which stands for modern language association.

No matter what the specific style guidelines are, I think that making sure words are correctly spelled is a constant for all of them.

The spell check features on our computers have really made this much easier, but it is something you still need to watch for, as a word can be spelled correctly, but out of context.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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