A Response to the Unasked Question, “Why Use a Style Guide?”

Have you ever asked yourself why your instructors require you to format and cite your paper using a style guide?  Although you may view the task as a pointless one, it actually is replete with meaning.  Using a style guide:

  • Identifies you as a member of a particular community.  For example, MLA style is most common in the liberal arts and humanities, while APA format generally is used in the social sciences.  But there are many, many more (i.e. Chicago, Turabian, AP, CMS, CSE, etc.), and even variations within styles.  Which style you use says something about your work’s content, the discipline you are trained or writing in, and the people with whom you wish to communicate.
  • Offers a map to readers, a way for others to follow the path you took as you formed your unique conclusions.  Using a style guide allows members of a community reading your work to understand your shorthand abbreviations.  As others read your work, they have the information needed to assess your credibility and decide whether your work builds on others’ and has merit.
  • Streamlines the communication process.   By sharing a common format and being consistent in your writing practice, you allow readers to focus on what you are saying.

There are many, many rules accompanying every style.  Whole books are devoted to cataloguing them–websites, too (one of the best, Purdue’s OWL).  Instead of limiting a writer, however, these rules make it possible for creativity to flourish.  By using a style guide, the technical aspects of the paper (article, report, etc.) are taken care of, leaving the writer the freedom and time to focus on crafting prose.

Style guides aren’t just for academic papers, either.  LIU has a style guide; Nike, Apple, and The New Yorker have style guides.  In fact, most businesses adhere to some form of a style guide.  Why?  One word:  branding.  So next time you are asked to adhere to a style guide for a class paper or project, think of it as training for that next big step:  your chosen career.

I’d love to hear from readers!  What do you think?  Why do you like using a style guide?  Which is your favorite?  What makes sense about it?  Would you alter it in any way to make what you feel are improvements?


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the longest island

The Arthur O. Eve HEOP English Blog at LIU Brooklyn

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