Friday, May 28, 2010

Are You Stylin'?

Is your writing in style? Which one? There are several, you know. Or, didn’t you know? I’m not talking about font or letter style—I’m talking about grammatical and punctuation style. Yep. Crazy, isn’t it?

I thought there was only one way to punctuate. That’s what my primary and secondary teachers taught me—there was the right way and the wrong way. Right?


It wasn’t until I submitted a book proposal to a contest and received several judges conflicting comments that I realized this wasn’t true. One editor said I used too many commas. The other one said my grammar and punctuation were spot on and gave me a score of five out of five.

How can that be? How can the same work be both right and wrong?

Here’s how. There are many different writing styles and guides. Here are a few:

• ACS Style Guide
• The Chicago Manual of style
• Turabian
• The Elements of Style
• The Elements of Typographic Style
• ISO 690
• MHRA Style Guide
• MLA Handbook
• MLA Style Manual
• The New York Times Manual
• The Associated Press Stylebook
• The Oxford Guide to Style/New Hart’s Rules
• The Publication Manual of the APA

These style guides each contain different sets of rules. Different publishing houses may use different style guides. Some are used by magazines and newspapers; others by universities. Most guides have new and old editions. The current CMS (Chicago Manual of Style) was updated in 2003 to include computer technology and internet information. This manual is the 15th edition and is said to be the biggest update in 20 years. My critique partner, Lisa Harman, says that styles are like different versions of WORD. There are upgrades, but some publishers prefer to keep their older versions—many times because they’re paid for.

So which style should you choose?

Ask. Most publishing houses have a preference and share style sheets with their writers. Sometimes you can find their preference in their guidelines. The style guides enable a standard of uniformity in writing regardless of how many different authors write for the publisher.

Preferred styles relate to things like grammar usage, whether to use ‘ise’ or ‘ize’ at the end of words, whether numbers should be spelled out, or digits used, etc. The New York Times Manual gives some whimsical entries, such as one for how to spell shh.

Here’s another example. Which one is correct?

Her worn Bible sits on the nightstand. I pick it up, run my fingers over its leather cover, and open it.

Her worn Bible sits on the nightstand. I pick it up, run my fingers over its leather cover and open it.

Both are correct. Whether you put the comma after the word cover depends on the style and edition you’re writing for.

But what if you don’t know who is going to be the lucky publisher of your WIP?

Which style do you use? Pick one and be consistent. I choose the Chicago Manual of Style because it’s the one I’m most comfortable with. I figure if I can successfully and consistently demonstrate that I can write within the parameters of the CMS rules, than a publisher will have the confidence in my ability to switch to their style if it’s different. Wouldn’t most of us do that for the sake of getting published?

Dr. Dennis Hensley, the director of the professional writing major at Taylor University, says, “When in doubt, reference my book, Teach Yourself Grammar and Style in 24 Hours.”

Don’t let style inhibit your writing. Just know that there’s a difference and the next time you read a novel, magazine, or newspaper stop and notice the style differences in punctuation. How are they different? And as you gather information about publishers, ask what their preferred style is.

The most important thing, though, is to keep writing because if you’re not writing, you’re not stylin’ at all.


  1. Wow! Thanks, Michelle. This has always been a tough one for me. Sometimes I have wondered if it would be okay to publish my own (personal) manual of style and have my editors follow it. That way when I did crazy things I could just say "See? It's right 52."

  2. Oh dear! (Or is it "Oh, dear"?) I thought grammar and punctuation were my for-sure strength. Thanks for enlightening me!

  3. WOW, Michelle, you made a blog on STYLE fun to read -- and worthwhile! Is this an article or from an article you've written?? If not, it should be -- might need to be expanded a bit, but sure sounds like Writer's Digest to me or the Christian Communicator. . . :-)

  4. Right now I use the AP style because I got into the habit at the newspapers. At least that got me into the habit of only one space after periods!