The Writer’s Toolbox – A Matter of Style

APA. Chicago. MLA. Turabian. CSE.

Struggling to properly format the citations in your paper is bad enough. But what if You’re unsure which style guide to use in the first place?

Which is which?

The various citation style guides were developed in response to the needs of different academic disciplines. Although it can feel overwhelming, looking at the purpose of each style will help you understand them a little better.

The APA (American Psychological Association) citation style, developed for use in the social sciences, focuses on the date of the source material. It is still used in the social sciences in academia, but is also the style favoured by many publications, both academic and otherwise (including The Voice Magazine).

In the MLA (Modern Languages Association) citation style, the emphasis is on the author of the source material. For this reason it is commonly used in the humanities, like English literature. The Chicago style, which focuses on the actual source material, is popular in disciplines like history.

While the manuals themselves are an invaluable resource, Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab has a user-friendly guide to the APA, Chicago, and MLA citation styles. This e-book on documentation is also helpful.

There are other, less commonly used styles. Turabian is a modification of Chicago; it was created to suit the unique needs of students. CSE (Council of Science Editors) is popular in many scientific disciplines. And many universities, presses, publications, and other entities have their own in-house styles that contain elements of several of the ?big three? guides.

Which style guide to use?

Nearly every professor has a preference, so the first step is to check the instructions on your assignment or the standards outlined in your course handbook. If the information isn’t there, check for department standards (for example, the English department for your Women’s Literature class). You might also contact your tutor or professor for clarification.

If You’re working furiously at three o?clock in the morning and your paper’s due in six hours, choose the citation style that seems the best fit for your academic discipline. For example, English classes commonly use the MLA style, so the Women’s Literature paper should probably follow the MLA recommendations.

If the citation guide is not specified or is ambivalent, include a note indicating which style you’ve chosen, and why. And whichever citation style you follow, ensure you do it consistently throughout your paper.

Beyond citations

Some may find it surprising that the style manuals cover a lot more than citations. In fact, of the Chicago Manual of Style‘s 1025 pages, only 151 deal with citation documentation; the rest of the manual discusses grammar, punctuation, and usage conventions. There’s even extensive coverage on the publication process, including how to lay out elements like the copyright page of a book.

For authors

Because of the breadth of their language coverage, style guides are useful outside the academic world as well. For example, It’s a consideration if You’re writing a book, particularly if You’re self-publishing.

While most publishing houses or smaller presses have both a preferred (or in-house) style and a host of copyeditors, independent authors are responsible for choosing and maintaining a style on their own. While there are exceptions, the general preference is to follow Chicago for literary fiction and the APA for nonfiction and some forms of genre fiction. Either way, the most important thing is to stay consistent within the manuscript. Conforming a manuscript to the appropriate style can be a laborious and difficult task, so if you are not intimately familiar with the appropriate guide, hire a copyeditor who is. Your readers will thank you.

An opportunity

Although it can feel as though style guides were created to torture students or writers, they actually present a great learning opportunity. The purpose of style guides is to ensure consistency and fairness. Even if you never use MLA or Chicago again in your life, conforming your documentation, paper, or novel to the appropriate style is a great way to organize your thoughts, change the way you view your source material, and create an internally consistent product. And That’s a lesson you’ll carry with you long after you’ve handed in your work.

Christina M. Frey is a book editor and a lover of great writing. Chat with her on Twitter about all things literary @turntopage2.