Style Manuals:  What are they?

Style manuals are systems of documentation and formatting used in academic disciplines to facilitate collaboration among people writing in those disciplines. The most common style manuals are the following:

  • APA (American Psychological Association), used in psychology and the social sciences
  • MLA (Modern Language Association), used in English and the humanities
  • Chicago, used in history and some humanities 
  • ACS (American Chemical Society), used in the sciences

Why do we use style manuals?

Style manuals standardize the way to format a paper, including what style and size font to use, how big to make the margins, where to type your name, and how to organize your references.

They also standardize how to document borrowed material, which includes quotations, summaries, and paraphrases. By regulating how to format a paper and to document sources, each style manual makes it easy for students and professors to read papers, journal articles, and book chapters in their disciplines. It makes collaboration easier. Clear citations and references can help a reader find additional resources for research.

Finally, style manuals help writers avoid plagiarism. Because style manuals include the rules for signaling the use of borrowed ideas in writing, they ensure that writers properly indicate which ideas are their own and which come from other sources.  

Why are style manuals so complicated to use?

Many writers find the rules of the style manuals overwhelming, confusing, and downright frustrating. It often seems that the rules about citations, references, commas, periods, capital letters ... were invented by some cruel academics with too much time on their hands. However, every rule serves an important purpose and must be followed. Every rule helps the readers decode the paper quickly and correctly. It is a sign of professionalism and respect for your reader that you should carefully follow the style of your discipline.

Which style manual should you use?

When you write a paper using borrowed sources, you will need to follow a style manual. If you are not sure which manual to use, ask your instructors for guidance. They can tell you which manual is standard for the discipline in which you are writing.

How can you get help with the style manuals?

  1. Bierce Writing Commons consultants can help you learn how to use the different style manuals correctly. Come to your writing session with specific questions about formatting and documenting, and a consultant will help you learn how to navigate the style manual of your choice.
  2. Become familiar with the online version or print version of the style manual you will use. See below for specifics of each manual.

Style Manuals

MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers (7th edition) is used in the liberal arts and humanities.

Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, Sixth Edition is used in psychology and other social sciences.

Chicago Manual of Style is used in history and some disciplines in the humanities.