A Post About Style

Probably one of the most uninteresting blog titles I’ve ever come up with, but I’ve never been good at titling things. Hopefully the post will be more interesting than its title. Anyway…

When I think of style, I don’t think of fashion, accessories, jewelry, or clothing. I think of style in regards to editing and writing — like different types of style guides or ways of expressing oneself in writing. For instance, there’s Associated Press (AP) style (mostly for journalists), American Psychological Association (APA) style (mostly for social and behavioral science publications), the Chicago Manual of Style (mostly for book publishers), and countless others — most of which are enormous tomes.

What fascinates me about style is how each style guide differs on seemingly inconsequential matters like how publications are cited in a reference list. Most ┬álaypeople don’t care too much about all the specifics of reference citation style, just as long as the reference leads them to the correct source. They don’t care whether or not the journal title is italicized, placed in quotes, initial capped, or lowercased. But editors have to care about these matters in order to ensure consistency. Quite frankly, it looks ugly and unprofessional to have a reference list with half the entries styled in APA and the other half styled in Chicago. Consistent editing style helps keep things organized and held to a certain standard.

Writing style is another matter. I would say that one of the best writing style guides is Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, which has been around for a long time and weighs a fraction of other bestselling style guides. Unlike APA style, AP style, and Chicago, Elements is concise and to the point, offering guidelines geared more toward writers than editors (although it’s definitely useful for both). It doesn’t go in depth about the usage of specific words or every single use of a comma as much as other style guides do, and it doesn’t talk at all about formatting or submitting pieces for publication. Its length allows it to be easily read over and over again so that the knowledge within it can be committed to memory. Trust me, it’s difficult to read the Chicago Manual of Style from cover to cover, much less to read it over and over. It’s strictly a reference book, whereas The Elements of Style can be read for pleasure (well, it’s pleasure if you’re a nerd like me).

But style guides are just that — guides. As with any art, there are no hard and fast rules of writing fiction. (Nonfiction is another matter — I would argue that the rules/guidelines are much more strict.) Hemingway came up with his own style. Faulkner had his own style. Neither style precisely follows the guidelines in any style guide — and both are vastly different from each other — yet both of these writers have achieved fame and have published great works of literature.

So in a sense, style has two meanings in the writing/editing world. Style can be a particular writer’s unique way of putting words together. Style can also be a prescribed set of guidelines for clarity and consistency in written communication. As with music and art, in writing it’s best to know and be aware of the existing guidelines before creating your own style. Know the “rules” before you break them. :)

5 thoughts on “A Post About Style

  1. I bought Elements a few months back but I still haven’t read it. I think I might finally get reading it after this post!

  2. Even the Chicago Manual of Style gives credit to Strunk and White.

    I mostly follow the CMOS (both at work and in my fiction writing, though in both cases there are a few rules which are not “by the book” :-) ).

  3. My girlfriend owns a copy of the Elements. I’ve been meaning to get around to reading it, but my reading list is ridiculously long anyway.

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