style guide manuals apa, mla

An Overview of the Different Style Guides in Academic Writing

Academic publications are structured pieces of non-fiction work that are supported by valid evidence. They document and share original research work or review existing research in all academic disciplines, usually written by experts in their fields. These literary works can include anything from university research papers, reports, books, university essays and assignments, theses, journal articles, review papers, technical papers and more.

Like all pieces of written work, academic publications also follow a certain format. We usually notice that these works use citations, formal language and jargon, they follow a special structure to present information, and they appear rather plain due to the lack of colours or pictures. There are many such characteristics found in these written works.

But who decides which format to follow? That may depend on the professor, mentor or organization, but they all prescribe using specific style guides such as APA, MLA, CMS, etc. These terms surely bring back distressing memories from university when we all struggled to either write or consult hundreds of research papers at one point.

In this post, we will understand what style guides are and look into the origins and uses of different styles. We will also attempt to understand their purpose. If you’ve ever wondered what the point of using these formats is, you’re in the right place.

What are Style Guides?  

various recognized style guide manuals
Image Credit: Hesburgh Libraries

A style guide is a collection of suggested rules for writing. The guidelines determine how content in a written document will be presented. They guide the writer by setting standards for format, structure, grammar, syntax, punctuation, abbreviations, compound words, citations, etc. These guides are specific to an academic field, meaning publications in different disciplines use the corresponding type of style guide.

These guides are not only used for academic publications but also used by brands, different industries and organizations. That way, they standardize their way of presenting their content. This can be seen in their design and language, for example. These efforts reflect the type of audience they’re targeting, better communicate their message and help them stand out from their competitors.

Style guides are sometimes casually referred to as writing styles. However, the two are quite different. Writing style refers to the nature of written content. There are generally four types of writing styles; persuasive, narrative, expository, and descriptive. Style guides indeed influence writing to an extent, by setting guidelines for grammar and punctuation. But it doesn’t entirely change the nature of literature, as it focuses more on the presentation of information.

Style guides or style manuals were originally published as books but today, they are also available online.

What are the Different Types of Style Guides?

There is a long list of style guides that are currently used around the world. This is because any type of organization that publishes written material in large numbers will most likely have their own style guide. For example, The New York Times Manual, the Oxford Guide to Style/ New Hart’s Rules and the Microsoft Manual of Style.

In the English speaking world, academic papers most frequently use three style guides. They are APA, MLA and CMS. These are discussed in detail below.

APA by the American Psychological Association

APA, short for the American Psychological Association, is one of the most developed style guides. It logically structures empirical research, properly credits other authors and, of course, prepares the document appropriately for its submission to a university or a journal.

Some of the common features of the APA style are, title page, headings, subheadings, in-text citations, reference list, all margins set to 1 inch, double spacing, the use of standard fonts such as Times New Roman or Arial set between sizes 10 and 12 points, the use of page numbers and abstract. It requires an abstract for all essays for all types of written documents with over 1000 words.

This style is used for disciplines such as Social Sciences, Psychology, Anthropology, Sociology, Natural Sciences, Health Care, Education, Linguistics and other scientific fields.

The APA style was formulated in 1929 when a group of scholars from fields such as psychology, anthropology and business decided to set some guidelines to standardize the way scientific literature was documented. They aimed to facilitate comprehension of the content for a wider audience.

APA publication manual 7th edition
7th Edition of the Publication Manual. Image Credit: Dissertation Advisors

The original edition was actually a seven-page long article that was characterized as more of a standard of procedure. Writers were advised to use headings, subheadings, separate sections for an introduction, presenting research results and discussion of results, and to maintain a logical framework. It also provided instructions on the method of using tables and on how to cite references used. Since 1929, the standard of procedures has been developed into a book titled Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, a set of well-defined suggestions based on the requirements of students, researchers and teachers in different scientific disciplines. For instance, they added suggested methods to avoid plagiarism and opinionated verbiage.

The APA style is currently in its 7th edition, which was published in 2019.

MLA by the Modern Language Association

MLA, short for the Modern Language Association, is also another popular writing format used and recognized globally. This style of presentation aims to be brief yet precise. The main focus of the MLA format, however, is citations.

In-text citations in the MLA style require the author’s last name and page number of the work cited from and they mustn’t be separated by commas. In the APA format, in-text references require the author’s last name, year and page number separated by commas.

The MLA format heavily uses abbreviations in its in-text citations and occasionally even uses footnotes. It also has a reference list with complete sources at the end of the document. The citation method used in the MLA style is particularly effective against plagiarism. It requires the writer to indicate the exact location of their sources, urging them to actually read the works they’ve cited. It also restrains the writer from citing invalid sources. Obliging this guide shows respect to other writers and artists. It also allows writers to get full credit for their work.

Other notable characteristics of the MLA format are that it does not have a title page, it uses one-inch margins, double-spacing between sentences, a header with name and page number and usage of the font Times New Roman at 12-point.

It is mainly used in the field of language, liberal arts, literature and other disciplines in the field of humanities.

A Brief History of the MLA Style

9th Edition of the MLA Handbook
9th Edition of the MLA Handbook. Image Credit: MLA Style via Twitter

The origins of the MLA style date back to the early 1950s when the Modern Language Association published its first style guide with the intention of teaching academics how to prepare their work for publication. However, scholars found many discrepancies and couldn’t unanimously agree on the guidelines. By 1970, the guidelines were updated and by 1977, the first edition of the MLA Handbook was published. The handbook not only aided scholars but also university students to prepare their academic writing appropriately. With every new edition, the pages of the handbook increased as it provided updated suggestions for formatting and referencing.

The MLA Handbook is in its 9th edition, which was published in 2021.

CMS or Chicago Manual of Style

CMS or CMOS is short for the Chicago Manual of Style. It is the oldest and by far the most preferable format used by publishers for both academic and non-academic publications. But since we’re discussing styles for academic writing, the CMS format is mostly used by scholars and students in literature, history, arts, and other disciplines in the humanities and sciences.

The CMS is rather complicated compared to the other styles, but it is also the most aesthetically pleasing and easiest to read.

The most notable feature of CMS is that, unlike APA and MLA, it does not use in-text citations. This is because its publishers believe that they disrupt the flow of reading. Instead of in-text citations, the CMS style uses footnotes and endnotes. The footnotes appear at the bottom of the page and endnotes appear at the end of the document in a numbered list. The only thing to appear within the text is a number corresponding to the footnote at the bottom of the page. However, they are so small that they’re easy to ignore while reading. At the very end, like all other style guides, there is a reference list with complete sources cited. This method benefits the reader by minimizing distractions and, it gives proper credit to the authors of the sources, avoiding plagiarism.

Other features of the CMS style are similar to the other two styles. It uses standard fonts, such as Times New Roman or Arial at size 12 pt, 1-inch margins, double line spacing and page numbers placed at the top right like in APA or MLA or the bottom centre of the page.

Though Wikipedia is not an academic source, the referencing style used in the online encyclopaedia is the CMS style.

17th Edition of the Chicago Manual of Style
17th Edition of the Chicago Manual of Style. Image Credit: Wikipedia

Short History of the Chicago Manual of Style

CMS happens to be one of the oldest style guides in the world and it is definitely older than APA and MLA. The original style guide was informal in nature. Back in the day, academic work was required to go through several steps before being published. Professors would first bring their handwritten manuscripts to the typesetters at the University of Chicago Press. Then, they’d be passed on to proofreaders who would correct and edit texts to fix spelling, syntax and grammatical errors. It is here that the need for a standard set of rules is required. These rules were initially just in a sheet and by 1906, it had evolved into a book containing developed guidelines for formatting. Today, the Chicago Manual of Style is in its 17th edition, published in 2017.

Other Writing Formats

The three style guides discussed above are the most popular ones. We saw APA, MLA and CMS are used across different academic disciplines but some styles are reserved for specific disciplines. For example, the AP or Associated Press is used for journalism. Newspapers and magazines, especially in the United States, tend to use this format. The IEEE or Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers style is used to write academic papers in technical disciplines like engineering and computer science. The American Medical Association or AMA Manual of Style is used for disciplines such as medicine and healthcare. The Bluebook is used to style papers in legal disciplines, particularly in the US. The list is endless.

What is the difference between all these Style Guides?

Style guides can contain very detailed guidelines, so there are rules to style things that won’t easily come to mind. The reason why so many styles exist is to standardize ways of presenting information. The need for this arises because of the nature of the English language. That is why the different styles differentiate themselves by setting standards for things like capitalizing headlines, headings, punctuation, dates, numbers, compound words, acronyms, format, verbiage for brand names, groups of people and technological devices.

table showing difference between mla and apa
Image showing some of the differences between APA and MLA styles. Image Credit: The PhD Hub

For instance, the heading used for the APA reference list is ‘References’, MLA uses ‘Works Cited’ and CMS calls their reference list ‘Bibliography’. In the case of numbers, these styles determine when numerical digits must be used and when numbers should be spelt out. Styles also standardize the way dates are written; whether they should follow the mm/dd/yyyy or dd/mm/yyyy format. They also determine if a word like lawnmower is spelt as ‘lawn mower’ or ‘lawnmower’.

Other than these differences, the style guides also set rules for formatting, determining the type of font and font sizes permitted, line spacing, indenting, margins, headers, footers, page numbers, etc.

The most visible and significant difference between the different styles, however, would be their way of citing sources. Each style guide has its own way of using in-text citations and citing in the reference lists.  As we saw earlier, some use the author’s last name and year separated by commas within parentheses, others don’t use commas and use the page number of the source instead of the publication year of the source.

What is the Point of Using Style Guides?

Now that we are slightly more familiar with style guides and their uses, let’s understand some reasons as to why they’re used:

  • Formatting in this case helps highlight the content in a way that allows the reader to go through vast amounts of writing. This way, information is more comprehensible and easier to grasp. Structuring also helps readers quickly identify and locate a very specific topic they may be searching for. Being able to achieve this would fulfil the very purpose of publishing academic literature, which is to understand facts presented with evidence, challenge existing theories and research and analyze topics in depth.
  • Styles also help maintain consistency, allowing the reader to interpret the information faster and avoid misunderstanding.
  • They allow ideas to flow clearly, precisely and coherently, ensuring a logical structure and framework is maintained even in large pieces of written work.
  • Having an established set of rules regarding the format of the written work saves time and energy. Having to think about how to format and present information would take up time and energy that can now be used to work on the content.
  • Managing to apply these guidelines shows that a person is capable of following rules and instructions. This especially concerns university students as demonstrating this capability can affect the probability of getting hired.
  • Style guides aid in maintaining academic integrity by giving credit where it is due. Giving credit to works cited adds to the credibility of the work and the author. If these works aren’t cited, that would mean that the content is plagiarized. Plagiarism hampers the credibility of the author and their probability of publishing in the future. For students, it may result in low grades or disqualification. Plagiarism is overall penalized.
red circle crossing out plagiarism
Image Credit: Big Star Copywriting

A Summary of the Ever-Evolving Style Guides

In this post, we learned that style guides are essentially a set of suggestions or guidelines developed by various organizations, associations and publishers that allow academic authors to effectively present their content. Among the many reasons, they are used to ensure consistency, avoid plagiarism and facilitate comprehension of research. We saw that the three most popular style guides are the APA, MLA and CMS styles. These guidelines are constantly being developed and updated in their editions of manuals to accommodate the changes brought about by the advancements in technology. Nowadays, it is even possible to cite movies, YouTube videos and other social media posts.

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One thought on “An Overview of the Different Style Guides in Academic Writing

  1. I didn’t have any expectations concerning that title, but the more I was astonished. The author did a great job. I spent a few minutes reading and checking the facts. Everything is very clear and understandable. I like posts that fill in your knowledge gaps. This one is of the sort.

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