My blogs over the past few weeks have been aligned with the five threshold concepts of teaching composition and the practices and ideologies of the writing disciplines, but this week is a bit different. Over the past week I’ve noticed a common, recurring theme in my academic, professional, and personal lives—style guides. For anyone who may not know, in terms of writing, a style guide is “a manual detailing the house style of a particular publisher, publication, etc.” Essentially, a style guide sets the parameters for how a completed document should look. Style guides vary from fairly loose and general, existing just for the sake of stylistic continuity, while others are extremely rigid and discipline specific, providing the grammar and mechanics rules acceptable for that specific style.
Most writers are familiar with the two commonly used guides: the Modern Language Association guide and the American Psychology Association guide. However, there is a broad range of guides available for specific disciplines, such as the Associate Press guide, Chicago Manual of Style, and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers guide. That doesn’t include the individualized style guides created for specific publishing houses or even specific publication projects.
I was recently given the opportunity to help develop a style guide for a national book project alongside the senior editor as a co-lead editorial assistant. While creating a style guide was fairly new territory for me, it was an exciting and thought-provoking process. We had to look at writing in a very metacognitive way to decide what stylistic rules we were going to set and why. I had never really had to do that before, and it was a very eye-opening endeavor. It not only revealed a lot about what readers may expect to see but also revealed a lot about the choices I make every time I put words on a page. However, it never occurred to me that this might inform my teaching habits.
While working on editing the upcoming installment of this book project, I noticed that some of my fellow editorial assistants were making edits without consulting the style guide that had been developed. This process resulted not only in inconsistency in the edits but also in some edits being in direct opposition with the style guide. This project made me think of the students I’ve encountered that make common errors in their papers because they either choose not to or don’t know how to use the style guides for their disciplines.
Many students treat MLA, APA, CMS, and many of the house style guides as if they exist solely for citing sources. I think a big reason behind that is the manner in which educators present the style guides—as tools to circumvent plagiarism. So, one thing I want to be sure I tackle in my First-Year Composition classroom is ensuring that students know how to maximize the use of their style guides. It will not only help them to alleviate many stylistic errors but also teach them that there is more to style guides than citing sources.