Changing Styles

We all know styles change. What’s fashionable today—in clothing fashion, home decor, and even writing—is passe tomorrow.

Most of us would agree that some of the great classics of all time probably wouldn’t be published today because the writing style is too different from what publishers like now.

But did you know that you might have to change the way you write, depending on the preferred style of the publication? If you write for a newspaper, for example, you will probably be required to use AP (Associated Press) style for your article or column.

Students writing academic papers will use specific style guides assigned by their school. The APA Publication Manual from the American Psychological Association is used in the social and behavior sciences, along with education. The Modern Language Association Handbook is often required for papers in humanities classes.

And in the book publishing industry, the style guide used most often is the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS), published by the University of Chicago Press. As you might imagine, this is the style I generally use since most of my work is with books.

You’ll find more about style guides in What are style guides and why do I need them?

A few months ago, the 16th Edition of the CMOS was released simultaneously in hardcover and as an online subscription. Since then, I find myself referring to the online manual far more often than I did before to make sure I’m following the current style.

The purpose of using a style guide is to ensure consistency in written documents. Do you use a serial comma (the comma before the last item in a series)? If you using AP Style, you don’t use the serial comma unless the meaning is unclear without it (red, white and blue). If you’re using Chicago style or most of the academic styles, you always use the serial comma (red, white, and blue).

Consistency is threatened when the style guidelines change. For example, Chicago used to spell Web site as two words, with Web capitalized. In the 16th Edition, the preferred spelling is website (one word, all lowercase). However, web page is two words, all lowercase. The abbreviation for United States is now US, not U.S.

Maintaining consistency in  a book or similar publication is easy when styles changes. Just stick with a single edition, preferably the 16th Edition unless the project was already far advanced when the latest edition came out.

But what about my blog and website? Posts and pages written in the past use 15th Edition style. I’m gradually making the transition to the 16th Edition as I discover changes. So you’ll find Web site in older posts, and website in more recent posts. It’s not that I can’t remember which to use—it’s that the rules have changed.

Do you follow a specific style in your blog? If so, what style do you use and why did you choose it? How do you handle evolving style rules?

David Bowles recently wrote about a related topic: the changing meanings of words. He asked the question if the dialogue in his historical fiction should use words that are no longer used or that have different meanings today than when his characters lived in the eighteenth century. You may want to drop by his post and give him your opinion.

Added 2/11/11: Based on comments received on this post, I am now planning two additional posts—one on style sheets and one on whether to use a style guide for blog posts. On the last topic, read Matt Keegan’s How to Maintain a Consistent Writing Voice.

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