Grammar Byte: How to Write With Style—the Guide

This week, my writing life is consumed by questions of commas, hyphens, en & em dashes, ellipses, and the width of a “thin space”. In other words: copy editing!

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Before you groan and roll your eyes and click “back” on your browser—copy editing is an important tool in every writer’s (and student’s) toolbox. An afternoon copy edit might not be your idea of a good time,* but chances are pretty good that if you write, at some point you’ll have to smooth out the rough edges of misplaced modifiers and dangling participles and comma usage in your writing.

When you do, you’ll be copy editing. And it doesn’t have to be painful…if you know the right tool for the job:


What, you ask, is a style guide? (Okay, maybe you didn’t ask that…but I’m going to tell you anyway. Feel free to skip ahead.) A style guide is basically a big-ole-reference manual of all things related to grammar and formatting and word usage.

There are several biggies:

  • Chicago Manual of Style: This is usually the best bet for fiction writers. Currently in its 16th edition, it’s available online (much easier to search than the print edition), and it offers a 1-month free trial.
  • Associated Press Style Guide: More sparing in its use of punctuation, italics, etc., than Chicago, this is the accepted style guide for journalists. If you write for newspapers and some magazines, this is the guide for you. 
  • American Medical Association Manual of Style: Used for medical writing, this guide takes into consideration details such as how presentation impacts readers’ response to and understanding of research results.
  • Turabian: Basically an adaptation of Chicago for students, this guide provides extra focus on reference annotations.

CMOS_16thed If you need to copy edit your own material, pick the best-looking manual and use it to look up answers to all your copy editing questions. For instance, chapter 6 covers everything you’d ever want to know about punctuation: the circumstances in which to use a comma, punctuation with email addresses, periods in relation to brackets and parentheses, and (my personal favorite) their position on the serial comma. (They’re in favor.)

Since every single rule gets its own section (6.1, 6.2, and so on), it’s ridiculously easy to locate answers.

What about you? What do you use as a reference when it’s time for that final manuscript edit? Or do you go with your punctuational gut feelings?

*unless, like me, you get excited about thin spaces—and in that case you have other problems….

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