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    Another Perspective on Writing with Style

    Thursday, June 02, 2011

    Blue Sports CarLester Smith's "Stylish Writing" entry last week commented on style as it pertains to voice, which creates the individuality of your writing. Your style comes from the words you choose and the structure of your sentences. Your style makes your writing sound like you.

    But there's another meaning to style in writing, and that is the specific formatting of your work, dictated by your purpose. There are many style manuals—it seems every organization has its own—but the major style manuals are AP (Associated Press), APA (American Psychological Association), MLA (Modern Language Association), and Chicago Manual of Style (often abbreviated CMS). Each contains guidance for formatting your writing, depending on the subject and audience.

    For example, let's look at the serial comma (often called the Oxford comma or Harvard comma, because it is advocated by those august bodies). The serial comma is the one before the conjunction in a list, and writers often wonder if it should be used or omitted. According to many style guides, including APA and MLA, it should be there. CMS also recommends it for clarity. However, the AP stylebook, which is the bible of journalistic writing, says "No" to the serial comma. Is there a reason for this difference? Well, to be honest, it's a matter of practicality: newspapers are always trying to save space, and cutting that comma gives an extra pica to the piece.

    MLA serves well for general writing. CMS does as well, although it actually offers more than one documentation style—the author-title system being like MLA and the author-date system like APA. (Listing publication date just after author names is important in scientific articles. Speaking of which, the Council of Science Editors, or CSE, also has a style manual, for publications dealing with hard sciences.)

    Anyway, to put all this in perspective, the style manual you use is only a tool, designed to make your writing grammatically correct and fitting to your purpose. Each manual's guidelines should be incorporated within your larger personal style to make your writing most effective.

    Note: For a quick yet excellent overview of general style issues, see the famous little volume The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White. It's the classic guide for all basic questions about writing and should have a place of honor on your desk. You can find a free copy of Strunk's 1918 edition at Feedbooks.com, in Epub, Kindle, and PDF versions.

    —Joyce B. Lee

    Photo by Michael Bloch