The Doctor is IN!

Why bother with a style guide?

If you write or edit more than one document a day or work with other writers and editors, you need a style guide to provide guidance on style (language conventions with respect to spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and typographic arrangement and display). You can create a style guide at the personal, department, or corporate level (depending on the politics in your workplace).

For example, will you write:

  • Provider Services Department or Provider Services department?
  • Post-operative or postoperative?
  • Bullet points with periods at the end?
  • Zero through nine as words and 10 and above as numerals?

If you want consistency in your documents, you must have a style guide to direct these and hundreds of other style decisions.

Base your style guide on a published style manual

Published style manuals include The Gregg Reference Manual or The American Medical Association Manual of Style. You can buy most style manuals on Amazon. To compare 12 currently published style manuals, download this style manual guide that I wrote with my colleague Elizabeth Frick. (You read that right―the other Elizabeth Frick [Betsy Frick] and I have collaborated on several books and documents).

Here’s the short version of that matrix:

  • For most technical and business documents, consider using The Gregg Reference Manual.
  • For medical documents, you must use The American Medical Association Manual of Style and/or Scientific Style and Format (the CSE Manual for Authors, Editors, and Publishers).
  • For academic publishing, consider The Chicago Manual of Style. This manual is generally not appropriate for technical or business writing.
  • For publishing psychological research, use APA (Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association). APA is generally not appropriate for technical or business writing.
  • For government writing, consider The Gregg Reference Manual and/or the U.S. Government Printing Office Style Manual (GPO Style Manual).
  • For journalism and marketing or sales writing, use AP (The Associated Press Manual of Style).  AP is rarely appropriate for technical or business writing.
  • For software documentation, use the Microsoft Manual of Style or Read Me First.

It’s important to realize that your chosen published style manual merely acts as the basis of your style guide―you can go against or “contra” any of the style manual’s advice. For example, if your chosen style manual requires a period after the abbreviation “Inc.” but your company does not use the period, you could list your style followed by the parenthetical (contra Gregg 122f). In a culture driven by individualism, not having to conform to a style manual on every decision may be comforting if you or others chafe at any hint of being controlled.

On the other hand, it may be even more comforting to know that you don’t have to create a style manual from scratch. Save time and base your style on a chosen published style manual, adapting it to work for your organization.


How do you feel about the Chicago Manual of Style?

The choice of a style manual can be more political than you might imagine. Just as people choose their style of dress, hair, and food and remain loyal to their choices, language and style preferences become entrenched, and few individuals welcome change.

I experienced this when I taught a technical writing seminar at a small testing firm. A learner in the class asked me for a recommendation for a published style manual. I answered, “In the absence of a corporate requirement to use a specific industry style manual like the AMA Manual of Style (American Medical Association) or the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA Style), I think a great choice for your company for good general business style is The Gregg Reference Manual.”

One seminar member reacted very strongly, grumbling that The Gregg Reference Manual was for secretaries and demanding that members of the class should use The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS). After a rather heated discussion about the pros and cons of each, we dropped the issue, but when I came to teach my class the next week, I found a box of CMS manuals (a $1000 investment) on my desk to distribute to the class.

After that, learners would e-mail me with questions like “How does Gregg handle XX?” or “We’re having an argument here about how to format YY, and it’s not listed in Chicago. Could you look it up for me in your copy of  Gregg?”

This is why it’s valuable to know which style manual is best for which industry or purpose. CMS was developed for the University of Chicago’s academic faculty and is best today for authors of scholarly works. It is also used in social science publications and most historical journals.

In contrast, the Gregg Reference Manual states that it is “the business writer’s survival manual” and, as such, includes many items not found in CMS. I own both, but I find myself referring to Gregg at least ten times as much as I refer to the CMS for business and technical writing purposes.

Check out these links:

The Chicago Manual of Style Online
Chicago-Style Citation Quick Guide
CMS Crib Sheet
Frick and Frick’s matrix comparing 12 current style manuals

Publication information:

The Chicago Manual of Style: The Essential Guide for Writers, Editors, and Publishers, 15th edition, 2003.

(New editions released about every 10 years)

University of Chicago Press

984 pages

ISBN: 978-0226104034

List price: $55.00 (about $30 on

The Yahoo! Style Guide

I just learned of the Yahoo! Style Guide online (you can buy it for $14.95 on Amazon). The online version has some interesting quick links; I was fascinated by their word list (is it 24/7 or 24-7?) You can download their list and start adding to it yourself, which would make you look very consistent in your writing.

I would suggest that this style guide might be best for people writing for the Web (yes, that’s right: Capitalize the word Web when a noun, but lower case it when combined with other words such as webcam, weblog, webpage). If you are writing in technical fields, such as medicine or engineering, that have their own style guides, of course you’ll follow those.

The CSE Manual for Authors, Editors, and Publishers

Recently, a client required me to edit their medical manuscript to the style manual Scientific Style and Format: The CSE Manual for Authors, Editors, and Publishers (7th edition). This style manual, published by the Council of Science Editors in 2006, might be of interest to people who write and submit articles in all scientific disciplines, especially chemical, microbial, plant, zoological, genetic, and medical sciences. To quote the preface: “This manual’s content on special scientific conventions is generally organized according to a rising scale of dimensions, starting with the fundamental units of matter and proceeding up through chemical and cellular components, microorganisms and more complex organisms, to the planet Earth and the rest of the universe” (p. ix).

In my role as a medical editor, I believe the AMA Manual of Style (American Medical Association) is more appropriate for my work, but the CSE certainly might be more appropriate for other scientific disciplines.

If you need to use the CSE citation style, these two websites are among several which offer “cheat sheets” to make your task easier:

Ohio State University cheat sheet on citation style

Dakota State University cheat sheet on citation style

You might also be interested in a thoughtful and very complete review of the CSE by Geoff Hart:

Finally! The Gregg Reference Manual is online!

I just discovered that the Gregg Reference Manual: A Manual of Style, Grammar, Usage, and Formatting, 10th edition is online. For the last 30 years, I’ve touted this book as a good reference for people who want to make sure their technical and business writing is correct. Now, the print-based text is online at vs. $51.07 for the book at

I forked over the $14.75 for an annual subscription and am glad that I did. The site seems fairly stable and functional. You can access the pages by search, by Table of Content links, and by index links. You can view the pages as single or double (the way you would if a book were open). The double page seems best for navigation and the single page best for closer reading. You can highlight sections and the highlighter remains even when you close your browser and open it up again.

Considering the cost of the book and the fact that it is revised about every 5 years, the $15 per year would cost more than the book…but hauling that book around is a nuisance for me and I think the online version may be faster to use. I’m still pretty sure I’ll look things up in the book as well.

If anyone else subscribes to the online version, please share your experience with it.