APA. MLA. AP. The alphabet soup of style. The books, the guides, perch ominously on the shelf. Perch. Like gargoyles.
Style is arbitrary.
First and foremost.
I’ve worked with each of these style guides. I’ve struggled through references and the finer points of punctuation pedantry. I’ve shrugged my shoulders and rolled my eyes at the tedious piles of rules about what can be said, how it should be written, why it should appear that way.
You know what disappears in all of that hair-splitting explanation? The who. The reader.
Editors, don’t let this break your heart, but: most readers don’t care.
The average reader pays much, much less attention to the trivial points of style guidelines than the average writer. And that goes quadruple for the average editor and probably ten times more for a great editor.
Why do readers pay less attention?
Because a great editor is only great in the style they edit.
What do I mean?
I mean that an editor with 20+ years of experience editing AP style is an expert at AP style. She is trained to pay attention to all the particulars of her style. But she automatically sees anything written in MLA or APA or Chicago or by an amateur without a style guideline as wrong.
She may be less likely than the average reader to jump between styles when reading or editing, and more likely to be bothered by elements of style that go against her ingrained guidelines. However arbitrary.
After speaking with an AP editor, having a discussion with an MLA editor (or any other style) with 20+ years of experience would be a litany of the ways and reasons that AP is out of its mind with its abhorrently incorrect rules of style.
So it goes.
Of course, a publication house may/will have their own in-house style guidelines, and if you’re publishing through a publication house, follow their rules.
But, luckily for you, if you’re a self-publishing fiction or nonfiction writer, you (basically) have the freedom to build your own style guidelines, based on your preferences.
All you need your style to be is: consistent and clear.
Writing tip of the day: create your own style guide
One of the best things any self-publishing writer can do while putting together a manuscript is to create a style guideline. Save it as a second document, or as an individual section of your draft – wherever makes the most sense to you – and make notes at whatever stage in the writing process it occurs to you to do so.
If you have a preference about the Oxford comma, make a note of it. If you have a character with a unique name spelling or identifying trait, jot it down. If you changed the name of a character or location at some point, record it. If you like title case or sentence case better for chapter headings, say so. If you want to add a Table of Contents after the manuscript is finished, put it on a proofread checklist.
Then, refer to your personal style guide during the final stages of writing and editing, (I can’t stress this enough – what good is it to write one up and then not follow it? Self-edit! For goodness sake) and submit it with your manuscript when negotiating with your editor. It will help them immensely, ease the writing and editing process, and allow you the freedom to express yourself exactly as you want to.
It’s your story. Tell it your way.