Traditional authors, journalists, and those in academia usually follow their organization’s or publisher’s chosen style guide. But if you’re an independent author, blogger, or business owner, you can decide which style guide is best for your writing.
Today’s post provides an overview of the “big four” style guides in American English:
- The Associated Press Stylebook (AP style)
- The Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago style)
- The MLA Handbook from the Modern Language Association of America (MLA style)
- The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA style)
The purpose of this overview is to help you decide which style guide is best for your writing based on each guide’s target audience, depth, and accessibility. If you need a quick primer on what style guides are and why you should use them, hop over to “What Is a Style Guide?”
The Associated Press Stylebook (AP Style)
The Associated Press Stylebook is for journalists who write for Associated Press outlets; however, it has been widely adopted by journalists outside of the Associated Press as well as organizations, news-centric bloggers, and independent authors who appreciate the Stylebook’s straightforward approach to style and usage.
The Associated Press Stylebook is updated every three years. Prior to 2020, it was updated every year. The Associated Press publishes it as a spiral-bound softcover and Basic Books publishes it as a bound softcover. It is also available through a subscription-based website.
Pros of AP Style
With special sections dedicated to business, fashion, food, religion, and sports, The Associated Press Stylebook is an obvious choice for bloggers, authors, and organizations writing news-centric content on those topics. Plus, the Stylebook’s alphabetized organization makes it easy to navigate.
Cons of AP Style
Because it’s updated more frequently than the other guides, The Associated Press Stylebook challenges writers and editors to stay current. In addition, it defers to Webster’s New World College Dictionary rather than Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, which is the preferred dictionary for the other three style guides mentioned in this post.
The Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago Style)
The Chicago Manual of Style is the most popular style guide in the publishing industry because it’s the most comprehensive option currently available—and this depth makes it more versatile for a variety of content, including general business writing.
The University of Chicago published the sixteenth edition of The Chicago Manual of Style in 2010. The seventeenth edition was published in 2017. Subscribers to The Chicago Manual of Style Online have access to web-based versions of both the sixteenth and seventeenth editions. None of the editions are available as an e-book.
Pros of Chicago Style
The Chicago Manual of Style is a publishing industry standard (although not all publishing houses use it), so those who choose to follow it are in good company with many heavy-hitters of the writing world.
More importantly, The Chicago Manual of Style has more depth than the other style guides discussed here. If you have punctuation, capitalization, abbreviation, or other usage questions, you’re likely to find answers within this hefty tome—that’s why I use it for my writing and suggest it to clients who haven’t chosen a guide yet.
Cons of Chicago Style
It’s big! So, don’t plan on lugging it to your writing sessions at the coffee shop unless you have a large bag and a strong back. Of course, if you need a travel-friendly option, you can subscribe to the online version. Additionally, its length and density can be overwhelming, particularly if you’re looking for topics that aren’t directly listed in the index.
MLA Handbook (MLA Style)
The Modern Language Association of America’s MLA Handbook is geared toward humanities students. While it does offer some style and usage recommendations, its primary concern is documentation and citation. It’s available as a softcover and as an e-book.
The MLA Handbook had a companion titled the MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing. This manual was more comprehensive than the current handbook; however, the Modern Language Association stop publishing it in 2016, and its recommendations are no longer part of MLA style.
Pros of MLA Style
The MLA Handbook is widely used by colleges and universities across the United States, so knowing MLA style is an advantage if you’re involved with academic writing in the humanities or other liberal arts. Furthermore, it’s physically small and, therefore, travel-friendly.
Cons of MLA Style
Due to its focus on documentation and citation rather than style and usage, the MLA Handbook may not be practical outside of academic or research settings.
Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA Style)
The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association is for academic writing and research in the social and behavioral sciences. It’s also an excellent option for bloggers and independent authors who write about topics within those fields of study.
The Publication Manual is available as a softcover, hardcover, and spiral-bound version, as well as an ebook. The American Psychological Association also has a subscription-based web portal called Academic Writer offering tools and resources for students and researchers using APA style.
Pros of APA Style
The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association is easy to read and well organized. Its tables and figures are especially helpful as quick references.
Cons of APA style
While more comprehensive than the MLA Handbook, the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association is squarely focused on academic writing and research. Therefore, it can be difficult to adapt to other types of writing.
In my opinion, The Chicago Manual of Style is the best option for (1) general business writers, including copywriters, bloggers, and many technical writers; (2) fiction and nonfiction authors who are interested in traditional publishing; and (3) independent authors who want to maintain industry-standard styles and usage.
The Associated Press Stylebook is the obvious choice for journalists, but it may also be the best choice for freelance writers or organizations that (1) create news-centric content or (2) want to instill journalistic sensibilities into their writing.
Lastly, the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association has more flexibility for use outside of academia than does the MLA Handbook, but neither is an ideal choice for business writers, fiction or nonfiction authors, journalists, or bloggers.
If you’re looking for even more style guide options, check out my previous post “Alternative Style Guides.” And who wants a style guide without a dictionary? Find out which dictionary is best for you, also.