What is style anyway?

As you reach higher levels of academia, the first thing you’re likely to notice is a difference in the way your papers must look. Between MLA, CMS, APA, and (oh the horror) APSA, it’s a regular alphabet soup of things which must be done, and can NEVER be done. And to make it even more confusing, it’s different for each one of them.  Even worse, some of them have different sub-styles. How is one to figure this out?

Well, to begin with, you can get rid of MLA.  It’s for undergrads and English majors.  The Modern Language Association publishes the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. This is the style taught in introductory composition courses. It is a very simple style to use. But, it also is rather limited in it’s citation styles.  For example, if you’re having to site the Constitution of the United States, you have to cite it as a book.  Being designed for the humanities, it is centered around literature and reviews.  

In most public administration and policy courses, you will need to use either the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) or the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA). Your instructor may specify something else, and if they do use that.  But these two are common enough that you should familiarize yourself with them quickly, if you haven’t already. The American Political Science Association has its own Style Manual for Political Science, but it is currently out of print.  I assume they are developing a new edition. However, APSA still has as its base CMS style.  

There are some other things you need to know.  There are two different citation formats in CMS.  Oee uses footnotes, and the one I’ve used most frequently (Author-Date) uses parenthetical citations, much like APA.  It is this style which is required by most journals in the field.  This leads to my last point which is essential to understand.



These style manuals are designed to explain how to submit manuscripts for publication.  APA in particular look totally abandons aesthetic appeal. The previous edition of CMS included a separate chapter on how to adapt it for use for coursework where you were producing a final product instead of a manuscript for a publisher.  However, the current edition removed that chapter.  In its place, they refer the student to a resource written by Kate Turabian titled A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations.  This is one of those resources that if you don’t have it, go buy it now. Most book stores have it, and its less expensive then a pizza (the universal measurement of expense for college students). It is much easier to read than the style guides, and it is much quicker to find the required information.

One quick anecdotal story about how important it is to communicate with your professor about which style guide to use. When I started writing my thesis, I had been writing in CMS style for two years (senior year of undegrad and first year of grad school). I had set up what I needed to do for my proposal, when it needed to be turned in, what needed to be included, and who had to approve it.  I sat down with my annotated bibliography I already had from a conference paper on the same topic, and started writing. My proposal was completed in record time.  I, beaming with pride, went to turn it into my advisor.  Well, pride comes before destruction indeed.  I handed it to my advisor, he looked at it, looked at me, and said, “What the hell is this?”  



I had written the entire legislative history, background, and literature review in CMS instead of APA.  At this point, I had no idea what APA was.  I thought it was something used by “those people downstairs.” (Our department was on the second floor, directly below us was the physiology department was directly below us on the first floor). So, I went to back to my closet office and started the re-write.  It took me longer to learn APA style and and rewrite than it took me to do the first draft.  Not to mention, changing hand written citations from one style to the other takes forever.  So, make sure you do it
right the first time.  


There are many online guides for using the different citation systems.  My personal favorite is Doc Scribe’s Guides to Research Style.  The site provides summaries and examples of all of the major citation systems.  If you have a quick, basic question while you are writing, you will probably be able to find the answer there.

Leave a Comment