How To Use A Style Guide

Not sure how to use a style guide? The following tips can help you find the reference information you need.

At college or in the workplace, a style guide typically refers to a publication that explains preferred guidelines, formats, and conventions of the prevailing writing style. For example, some large companies publish an in-house handbook that describes the type of writing they want their employees to use. While most of the stylistics are similar to those found elsewhere, there may be certain principles or characteristics, such as a letter or report layout, that the company prefers over other styles.

The same is true at many college campuses. While there are at least twelve documentation styles that can be used for writing a research paper, some colleges prefer one (or a few) over the others. The English or journalism department may prepare a writing handbook, also called a style guide, to explain to students the type of writing rules or conventions they are expected to follow.

One of the most popular styles is the Modern Language Association style, called MLA for short, that has been around for a long time and is still widely used today. Another is the American Psychological Association style (or APA), along with the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS). If you are asked to use one of these, or another, you will need to become familiar with the guiding principles that distinguish it from the rest.

A style guide, then, explains a particular style of writing and research documentation that is used predominantly throughout an organization. If you are issued a copy or asked to buy one, if a student, you can find many helpful types of information, like the following:

1. Format. Details like the recommended document length, margins, tabs, font, and printer ink color might be explained in the style guide. Headings for memorandums and reports as well as business letter outlines may be included in this section. Sometimes a style guide will include a FAQ or Q&A section to address potential reader questions.

2. Grammar. Most style guides offer a section on grammar usage. Principles of diction, agreement, parts of speech, and sentence structure can be helpful to writers at any level. Sometimes grammar practice or exercises are included, with or without an answer key, to help writers learn the principles outlined in the guide.

3. Punctuation. Everyone can use an occasional reminder about how to use commas, semi-colons, brackets, and slashes, among others. The basic rule of thumb seems to be, 'When in doubt, leave it out.'

4. Research sources. Where to find and how to evaluate helpful information is an important part of a style guide's function. With the proliferation of online resources, it can be difficult to know which material is accurate and which is unreliable. Many style guides offer a checklist to help you assess the effectiveness of any sites you visit for information. The guide may point out differences among popular, professional, and academic sources, and indicate when to use each type.

5. Documentation. Learning how to quote, paraphrase, and summarize source materials is an important part of writing for an organization. Misquoting someone else's ideas may lead to a charge of plagiarism, which can result in a student's dismissal from college or an employee's discipline at work. In addition to in-text citations, the guide probably will explain how to list sources at the end of a work, using one of the citation methods discussed above.

6. Examples. Some style guides provide samples of required or preferred writing, either created as illustrations or borrowed from past records. These are useful visual guides that work hand-in-hand with verbal instructions.

If your organization does not currently use a style guide, consider suggesting one. Perhaps someone can be assigned the project of creating a personalized style guide for the company or campus, either as part of one's regular duties or as an overtime paid assignment.

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