Style Guide Basics

One of the banes of being a content editor dealing with new writers is standards, or rather, the lack thereof. Whilst seasoned journalists usually adhere to the style guide they’re most familiar with, new writers often require a substantial amount of practise to adhere to any singular standard. In fact, inexperienced freelance writers often chop and change between guides. This makes for editing a horrible mishmash rather than consistent, flowing prose.

About a century ago, prior to the release of The Associated Press Stylebook, every US paper essentially did their own thing. Each had dozens of dos and don’ts, rules and suggestions knitted together into its own style book by the local chief editor. Whilst many of these rules are still valid, technology and consolidation in the media and publishing industries have since facilitated the creation of more universally accepted standards.

I thought it would be useful to outline two of the most prominent style guides currently in use, and that I feel every new writer/ journalist needs to be aware of:

The Associated Press Stylebook

The Associated Press Stylebook image

AP Styleguide

Established in its current form in 1953, the AP Stylebook is an essential tool for journalists. It is known officially as The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law, and the current version is based on the original copy produced by Norm Goldstein in 1979.

The AP Stylebook remains the standard for newspapers and magazines. While many independent media companies have their own guides, this one sets the baseline for grammar, punctuation and reporting principles and practises. It also includes a comprehensive guide to capitalisation, abbreviation, numerals and spelling.

The reason I recommend this as a starting point is that most readers are familiar with the style, since the they read newspapers and magazines. A trained eye, however can easily pick up differences in the standards. For example, in contrast to CMOS (Chicago Manual of Style) below, the AP doesn’t use the Oxford comma.

The AP Stylebook is regularly updated by Associated Press editors, usually around mid-year annually.

In terms of other style guides for journalism, I also highly recommend checking out the BBC Style Guide and The Economist Style Guide.

The Chicago Manual of Style

Chicago Manual of Style image

Chicago Manual of Style

For general publishing, the bible I’d recommend is the The Chicago Manual of Style, by The University of Chicago. First produced in 1906, the guide is currently on its 16th edition. It has become a trusted resource within the book publishing industry and for writers involved in trade and general market writing, the CMOS, as it’s usually called, is an invaluable resource.

An obvious shortcoming, particularly for the likes of the BBC and UK publishers, is that style guide is tailored for American English. CMOS deals with everything from editorial principles and practice, American English usage and grammar, to document preparation.

For an annual subscription fee, The Chicago Manual of Style is also conveniently available online. The online edition includes a FAQ section in which the University of Chicago Press editors answer readers’ most common style questions (this Q&A content may be accessed without the annual subscription fee).

CMOS is interesting in that it offers writers a choice of several different formats. It also invites mixing formats, provided that the resulting content remains clear and consistent.

The Elements of Style

Elements of Style image

Elements of Style

Another book I recommend for new writers is The Elements of Style. This book was originally published by William Strunk, Jr and E. B. White in 1918. Besides styling techniques, this invaluable resource also details subjects such as common misspellings and general advice for good writing.

Of course, there are a number of style guides that deal with academic papers and research, e.g. the AMA and MLA Style Guides. Wikipedia has quite a comprehensive list of the most common ones in use, categorised by country. You can find more details here.

Aside: A tip I can offer fiction writers seeking a freelance editor, is that they should first and foremost be consistent with their own elected style in their work. They should then ensure that the editor they choose is familiar with their style guide. There is nothing more frustrating than someone reworking your entire novel based on another set of standards if it’s not required (and more often than not, it is not required!) In my opinion, the key to good writing, besides maintaining simplicity, is consistency.

Later this year, NewsGame will be publishing a more detailed guide to capitalisation and abbreviations as this appears to be a common bugbear that is often picked up by readers. For example, when referring to the online gambling newspaper Online Casino Independent in its abbreviated form, is it preferred to refer to it as OCID, or Ocid? The same challenge applies to brands with peculiar capitalisation. For example, if one considers the eBay or GOfM (Gamble Online for Money) websites, is it acceptable to entertain the odd capitalisation?

In the meantime, it seems the rule of thumb is that if you can say the abbreviated form as a word, then it is acceptable the capitalise just the first letter (e.g. Nato, or Unesco). If you cannot, like BLTO, or the BBC, then all letters should be capitalised.


  1. Michelle Summers says:

    Hello Steve – is there any chance of providing an alternative link to the one you provide for the BBC Style Guide above? I’m teaching a writing course in South Africa at the moment and the link doesn’t appear to work outside the UK. Thanks

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