A matter of style

I recently began an editing job in a marketing communications department. The department has style standards, but when questions arise, writers use the Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law 2013. During my time as a technical communicator, the The Chicago
Manual of Style
was my go-to style source. So I decided to do a little comparison of the AP stylebook and the Chicago manual to see which one I’d prefer to take with me if, say, I had to choose one style guide as my only reading material before running for cover during a zombie attack.

Granted, the audience for each book is different. I did a search and found a lot of discussion of actual writing rules (I’m with the University of Chicago on the serial comma by the way). The differences seem not so significant; both books demand clarity and consistency in writing no matter who the audience might be. But to me there seem to be differences in the authors’
approaches to preparing a style guide. I wanted to focus on the accessibility of information in the books.

The Associated Press Stylebook is so 21st century.

The AP stylebook is definitely an easy read. I used this guide 30 years ago when I worked briefly in public relations; then it was called a style guide and libel manual. Now, things are more complicated, and so is the guide. It still focuses usage, containing definitions and correct spelling for words from Amber Alert to website. And it still provides a guide to punctuation. But in place of the libel manual there are appendixes on news values and media law, including guidelines for social media, sports, food, fashion, and business; a guide to writing stories for broadcast; and a guide to using interactive graphics in news stories.

I like the casual nature of discourse and the “everyman” approach used in the AP guide. In a world of mass electronic communication and social media (including participatory wikis), all writing – including technical documentation – is casual in tone and style.

I find the AP guide simple and easy to use. The usage section consists of an alphabetical list of terms, so it is very easy to find without an index. And that’s a good thing, because I couldn’t find an index in the AP guide. The best way to navigate this guide might be online using the search function.

Get all the specifics in the Chicago Manual of Style.

The Chicago manual is detailed, with many examples from many different academic disciplines. I can usually spot an example related to the topic of the text I am editing, no matter how
obscure that topic may be. The index is exceptionally detailed, so I can find just about any information I’m looking for. But index use is hindered, in my opinion, by the military numbering system used for headings in the Chicago manual. The numbering system and references to numbered headings in the index make finding information pretty frustrating. Pre-electronic everything, technical communicators annotated their print copies of this guide to find often-looked-up topics easily. I have heard of senior editors handing down their treasured annotated copies of this manual to their favorite junior editors upon retirement!

I was mulling over the index issue when it occurred to me that indexes seem to be on the road to extinction, perhaps because you can always buy a searchable version of any book. In fact, you can get an online subscription to most style guides. Electronic subscriptions are useful
because style is not static, and it becomes tiresome and expensive to buy new versions of these sometimes-bulky documents every time they are revised to reflect changes in language and culture.

I can’t resist playing it safe.

Despite its drawbacks I’d probably choose the academic Chicago Manual of Style over the hip AP guidebook. Why? The Chicago manual covers many different disciplines, it is detailed, and it is well indexed. Most importantly, or maybe most foolishly, I like it because I’m accustomed to it.

I recently bought an online subscription to the Chicago manual. But I couldn’t resist buying
another print copy too so I’d have the latest and greatest edition on hand in case of zombie
attack and subsequent loss of Internet connection. Better safe than sorry.

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