Picture an array of tall, fine-boned models strutting down a runway. Each model wears a different outfit, but the different pieces of clothing are obviously related, their hemlines, seams and shapes expressing the overall vision of one person, the famous designer who created the collection. Now imagine that this designer is you.
What choices did you have to make to come up with this cohesive collection? Perhaps you decided to make the shirts hang loose and the pants tight-fitting. You included your signature touch, a rounded neckline, on every shirt and tunic. If anything were out of place, you and your audience would notice instantly.
Style in writing, like style in clothing, is about the outward touches, the choices that make for a consistent presentation. While it may involve grammatical considerations, it's not all or even mainly about grammar. While every writer develops a unique style over time, made up of his or her accumulated habits and choices of diction and syntax, many also find it useful or necessary at some point to adopt the style advocated by an organization or publication.
This second type of writing style provides businesses, academic disciplines, and publishers a way to make decisions about matters like punctuation, word choice, and format that they can apply across an array of works, just as the fashion designer applies a unified set of ideas to an entire collection of clothing. Everything that is considered optional in writing may be covered by style, but no stylebook covers every possible issue.
Some style decisions regard punctuation: whether to use a comma before the conjunction preceding the last item in a list (the serial or Oxford comma) or to place quotation marks outside or inside end punctuation marks (the American style is to put them outside, the British to put them inside). Others are about capitalization: When, if ever, should you capitalize the first word after a colon? In what instances do you capitalize job titles and political titles? Still others regard word choice: whether to use farther or further, titled or entitled, dived or dove, and which dictionary to consult for cases not specifically mentioned. Some are about compounds: Is shortlist one word or two? Which compounds are hyphenated and which are not?
Style guides focused on academic writing devote many pages to the proper formatting of footnotes and endnotes, creating headaches for the beginning student but saving professors and publishers of academic journals and books an enormous amount of hassle.
Making so many minor decisions, particularly on matters that have no right or wrong answer, may seem silly to some, but it prevents a disorderly presentation that would make a writer or publication seem sloppy and inattentive. Following a set style, whether the choices are your own or someone else's, will help you maintain consistency in your work.
If you have free range in selecting a style guide to use in your writing and aren't bound by the wishes of your employer, editors, or school, it's best to choose one whose purpose closely matches your own goals. If you're a scholar of the humanities or social sciences, it's likely that you will use the Modern Language Association's MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing or the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. Journalists may turn to The Associated Press Stylebook, The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage or some other stylebook geared toward news publishing. The Chicago Manual of Style, a hefty tome, is used by both academics and book publishers and contains a great deal of information pertaining to the publishing process.
Even among guides that are used within the same line of work, there are significant differences. The style developed by the Associated Press emphasizes concision, for the quick composition and transmission of wire service stories: no serial comma here. The New York Times, on the other hand, retains the practice of using Mr. or Ms. when referring to people by their last names, conveying a formality that may lead the reader to expect deeper analysis than might be expected from a publication with a shorter, snappier presentation.
How the guide is structured will also tell you something about the factors that were most important to its authors and whether it will be easy for you to use for your own purposes. The AP guide is organized like a dictionary, listing words and categories in alphabetical order. It's an easy reference if your main concern is consistency in word spelling and usage. If you're interested in preparing a lengthy manuscript, the Chicago Manual may be more helpful, with its organization by category and emphasis on formatting.
Since most of us belong to more than one institution over the course of our lives, it's likely that you will be encouraged to follow several different guides or sets of rules regarding style. When you're on your own, though, what matters most is to recognize what choices you are making and to be consistent about them. Your work will appear more correct and more professional as you pay greater attention to the trimmings.