Which Style Guide Should I Use?

Whether you’re submitting your first essay for publication in an academic journal or facing the discriminating red pen of your professor, it is important to know which style guide to follow when writing. Consistency and attention to detail is the name of the game. While there are dozens of specialized style guides available, here is an introduction to three of the most commonly used style guides in academia and professional works.

If your class is in the social sciences, use American Psychological Association (APA) Style

Follow APA guidelines if your field of study falls within the disciplines of psychology, education, or other social sciences. This style is most commonly used when writing either a review of other academic literature on your specific topic, or an experimental report, in which you design, conduct, and report on your own experimental research. APA can seem pretty similar to MLA style (see below), but a few differences in the rules for referencing sources can muddle the process for students—often making the difference between an A and a B on a paper.

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For example, the APA style for citations includes the author’s name and source’s publication year. In this sense, APA style places greater emphasis on the publication date, unlike other styles (like MLA), which emphasize the page number. If you quote the source verbatim, the page number should appear in parentheses at the end of the sentence. For example:

According to Towle (2000), the reading workshop "provides a venue to focus on the strengths and needs of each student" (p. 38).

Leave out the page number if you’re simply paraphrasing. In both cases, the complete reference should follow in the reference list.

There are also additional requirements to be mindful of that are unique to APA style. Writing in APA style requires the use of a title page and a 150-200 word abstract. The abstract acts as a primer for the reader on what is ahead. Not every APA-style paper will require an abstract—particularly for academic works. However, scientific works often include a summary of the research, methods, and findings at the beginning of the paper. There are additional APA-specific citation rules to keep in mind, so look to an online guide for a breakdown of style rules on margins, title pages, in-text citations, reference pages, and more.

If your class is in the humanities, use Modern Language Association (MLA) Style

The MLA format is used for writers in the liberal arts and humanities, such as literature, arts, and cultural studies. You were likely introduced to MLA format in middle school or high school through writing assignments in your English class. All the same, many writers are required to brush up on their knowledge of MLA style.

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There are a few main points on which the APA and MLA style diverge. Unlike an APA-formatted paper, you can skip the title page when using MLA style. In-text citations in MLA style follow an author-page format, rather than the APA’s author-date style. Authorship is the focus in MLA papers, so the publication year is left out of the text body. For example:

Dalton uses word choice associated with burial, calling for the "interring [of] the myth of Horatio Alger," implying the myth has run its course of life (134).

If the author’s name has not been mentioned in the sentence, include it in the parentheses. In addition, you’ll include a Works Cited page at the end of a MLA-style paper, rather than a reference list.

If you’re in the writing and publishing industry or are writing about history, use Chicago Manual of Style (CMS)

Chicago Manual of Style is by far the most comprehensive style guide (it’s nearly 1,000 pages long), and is popular within the writing and publishing industry. It is also common to use CMS in scholarly works about history. The Chicago Manual of Style also offers two kinds of in-text referencing for an author to use, depending on the subject he or she is writing about or the sources he or she is using. (To add further confusion, college students are often directed to use a modified version of CMS, Turabian style). 

Within the body of the paper, CMS follows either the author-date system of referencing—similar to the MLA in-text citation format—or the notes-bibliography system. The author-date style of referencing sources is preferred by writers in the physical, natural, and social sciences. If you are writing about literature, history, the arts, or other humanities, you will generally use the notes-bibliography system, utilizing footnotes and endnotes throughout the work.

We’ve reviewed three of the major style guides used in academic and professional work, but if you’re still asking, ‘Which style guide should I use?’, you likely require a different guide. There are dozens more you may come across, including the AP style for journalism, the briefly aforementioned Turabian style, the American Medical Association (AMA) format for medicine and biological sciences, and the American Sociological Association (ASA) style. Not to mention, there are even more in-depth rules associated with the three styles we’ve introduced. Refer to your instructor’s or journal’s specifications, confer with a writing tutor, and get to know your new style guide online.