How to Choose a Style Guide for Academic Writing

A style guide is a reference book that provides rules for writing, such as grammar and syntax, in specific disciplines. These include how to format citations and references, which tend to be specific to the fields of study. Here, we explain some style guides used across different disciplines to help you to choose the right one for you.

Different Style Guides

Important Differences

English language rules don’t change much from discipline to discipline, although there are some subtle formatting differences. For example, in science writing, the serial comma is the internationally accepted format for lists, as is placing punctuation outside quotation marks (unless, of course, the punctuation is part of the quote).

Even so, most differences are in formats for citations and references. Some of the most commonly used styles are discussed here.

AMA: In-text citations are superscript Arabic numbers with periods and commas placed inside the number. The references follow the number sequence (see example).

  • Citation: Johnson et al.2 provided the results of their studies in 1975.
  • Reference: 2. Johnson AB, Smith CD, Houser EF. Shifts in alcohol consumption in pre-teens. Am J Clin Nutr. 1975;83(3):600–650.

Note that there are no periods after the author’s initials and abbreviations are used for journal names as listed in the PubMed Journal Database.

APA: In-text citations are author’s name and date separated by a comma. The reference uses the author’s name and year of publication. No quotation marks around the title. Italicize the journal name and volume. Present the issue number in brackets and page numbers at the end followed by a period (see example).

  • Citation: (e.g., Davis, 2008)
  • Reference: Davis, K. (2008). Intersectionality as buzzword: A sociology of science perspective on what makes a feminist theory successful. Feminist Theory, 9(1), 67-85.

CMOS: Uses endnotes and footnotes for references instead of listing all sources on a references page. Citations are superscript numbers. The reference numbers correspond to the citation numbers. “Ibid” can be used for multiple citations of the same source. Using CMOS’ notes–bibliography system, an alphabetical bibliography is also expected for all sources referenced. CMOS provides specific punctuation rules for references.

The CMOS author-date system is used in sciences. Instead of using footnotes and superscript numbers, this format uses the author’s name, the title, and the date. In the in-text citations, the author’s name and date are used in parentheses (e.g., Smith, 1949). There must be a reference for each citation using the same name and date and including the title of the work (see example).

  •  Citation: (Woodward 1987)
  • Reference: Woodward, David, ed. 1987. Art and Cartography: Six Historical Essays. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

MLA: Uses periods after author and title, with commas after version, number, publisher, and date. Location is at the end of the reference followed by a period. Note that the date is just before the location (
see example).

  • Reference: Lorensen, Jutta. “Between Image and Word, Color, and Time: Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration Series.” African American Review, vol. 40, no. 3, 2006, pp. 571-86.

CSE: Offers three different styles—citation–sequence; name–year; and citation–name—provides information on each. Each can be used in scientific publishing; however, consult your journal’s author guidelines.

Choosing Your Style Guide

Don’t be confused about which guide to choose for your work. The most common are listed here and the author guidelines for the journal provide information on its preferred format. Therefore, your choice should be based on your field of discipline and modified according to the target journal guidelines.

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