- Academic Research and Writing Tips / Tutorial

What Are Writing Style Guides and Academic Citation STyles?

Style guides are reference books used mostly by editors who must ensure that manuscripts for publishing all conform to the same style. Style guides are often rather detailed. They include information about formatting manuscripts, citing text from other sources (citation style), styling numbers, abbreviations, and the like. For the student, the most important part of the style guide is the citation style. The term “citation style” refers to the various rules on how to cite text from another source, both within your paper and at the end (in your bibliography, works cited, or reference page). The style guide will normally not have a chapter called, “citation style” but rather will have sections that show you how to give credit for information coming from a book, a magazine, and other types of references. It will also show you how to format your bibliography.


For the most part, when professors hand you a writing assignment indicating that it must be cited “according to APA style” or according to “MLA style,” they want you to cite it per the rules in these style guides. This is done in different ways, depending on which form you are using. Your professor may require footnotes, or endnotes, or may indicate that he/she simply wants internal documentation (citations in parenthesis within the paper). Citing your research material is extremely important to ensure to your professor that you are not plagiarizing material from other writers.

You may have heard of many citation styles, like APA, MLA, Harvard, Turabian, Chicago, AP, and Wired Style. APA and MLA are the most commonly used at the university level, but occasionally, depending on the subject, the others will be required. Below is a brief description of each of these and where they are used:

APA style is the writing style guide developed by the American Psychological Association. This style is commonly used in the social sciences.

MLA style stands for the Modern Language Association. This is typically used in the arts and humanities. Many of your papers for English class will probably have to be styled according to the MLA's style guide rules.

Harvard style is the citation method developed by, you guessed it, Harvard University. Also known as the author-date citation style, it refers to how sources should be listed in the references, or bibliography.

Turabian style was created by Kate Turabian, a former dissertation secretary at the University of Chicago. Her style guide is a simplified guide of the Chicago Manual of Style, used for term papers and other academic writing.

Chicago style is typically used in book publishing, although occasionally you will hear of academics (professors) requiring their students to consult it when editing and formatting their papers. The latest edition (14th) is a hefty tome of 921 pages.

AP style was developed by the Associated Press. This is the style commonly used in the schools or journalism, for writing press releases, newspaper articles, etc.

Wired style is sometimes used for web content and web-based publishing, but there is still considerable disagreement as to styles used on the Internet.

While the style guides are not difficult to follow, they can be more detailed than the average student needs. Most professors are more concerned about how you cite your sources than all the other details found in a style guide. Ask your professor what particular aspects are the most important to follow. You can either use the actual style guide itself (most are available at your university library in the reference section or in the book stacks) or look for excerpts available online. Many writing centers at universities have set up their own websites with this type of reference material available online.