Style guides – how they can help your scientific writing

Style guides: great tools for writers and editors

Style guides: great tools for writers and editors

What are style guides? Style guides contain standards of style and formatting for various fields (e.g., biology, chemistry, medicine, humanities, engineering).

What are style guides good for? Editors must make decisions based on context and their knowledge of the subtleties of language. Style guides can inform those decisions by answering questions about formatting and usage conventions. Examples of such questions include:

  • Should a number be spelled out or written as a numeral? When are units spelled out vs. abbreviated? For example, it is correct to write “Three milligrams of…” or “After mixing, 3 mg of…” but not “Three mg of…” (abbreviated units should not be combined with spelled-out numbers) or “3 mg of…” (numerals are not used at the beginning of a sentence).
  • How are multiple units presented? For example, “100 mg/kg/d” is incorrect (multiple slashes should not be used). This expression could be written “100 mg kg·d–1” or “100 mg/(kg·d)”.
  • When are geographic terms capitalized? For example, Laohun Mountain not Laohun mountain, The Nakdong River, but the Nakdong and Seomjin rivers (the rule here is that geographic terms are capitalized when they follow a name but not when they are used in the general, plural sense).
  • What symbols and variables should be italicized, and which should be roman (non-italic) (e.g., P < 0.05, n = 8, ex2 – 1)?
  • Is the correct abbreviation for “second” written “sec” or “s,” and is “year” abbreviated “yr” or “y” in SI notation? SI style abbreviates second as “s” and year as “y.”
  • Which taxonomic levels are capitalized? What is the correct way to write cultivar names?

How do you know which style guide(s) to consult? Journal formatting guidelines often stipulate points of style and sometimes request that authors and editors follow a specific guide. The “Instructions to Authors” of many scientific journals specify that SI notation should be used, and these instructions often give other guidance on formatting of numbers, units, abbreviations, and other items. There are many useful guides and books on grammar and language usage. Here are some of the style manuals that we use on a regular basis when editing scientific manuscripts:

Scientific Style and Format, The Council of Scientific Editors Manual for Authors, Editors, and Publishers  (the CSE guide) covers style, nomenclature, and symbol usage for biological and physical sciences and provides links and references to other discipline-specific resources. Highlights include:

  • Definitions of commonly misused (“imprecisely applied”) scientific terms
  • Recommended substitutes for unnecessarily wordy phrases
  • Guidance on writing units
  • In-depth chapters on taxonomy and genetic nomenclature and conventions
  • Coverage of conventions in the physical and earth sciences

The American Medical Association (AMA) Manual of Style provides a well-organized treatment of important elements of grammar, formatting, usage, and style. Highlights include:

  • Chapters on genetic, virus, and disease terminology
  • Units of measure and reference ranges for clinical laboratory measurements
  • Guidance on statistical methods, study design (especially in relation to medical studies), and a glossary of statistical terms
  • In-depth discussion of manuscript preparation

The ACS Style Guide, Effective Communication of Scientific Information, is a publication of the American Chemical Society. Highlights include:

  • A guide to the peer­review process
  • Important grammar rules, with examples
  • A list of “tricky plurals” with correct spellings
  • Recommended spellings for words that have multiple accepted spellings
  • A chapter on mathematical style and the use of numbers and units
  • A chapter on names and numbers for chemical compounds
  • Advice on preparing figures and tables

The Chicago Manual of Style is loaded with guidance on the publishing process, style, usage, and documentation. It is an important reference for editors and writers of books, journal articles, and most other types of manuscripts. A few highlights include:

  • A section on the process of manuscript editing
  • An extensive table on hyphenation, with rules and examples
  • A glossary of problematic words and phrases
  • A bibliography of works on writing, editing, publishing, and related references

The Gregg Reference Manual calls itself “the primary reference for professionals in all fields who are looking for authoritative guidance on matters of style, grammar, usage, and formatting.” While other books (to be discussed in another post) cover usage in more detail, The Gregg manual is an excellent guide to fundamentals and fine points of writing. Subjects covered in detail include:

  • Punctuation, capitalization, compound words
  • Grammar (parts of speech, sentence structure)
  • Structure and format of professional letters
  • Essays on style

The United States Government Printing Office (GPO) Style Manual was originally developed (it was first released in 1894) to standardize word and type treatment. The GPO Manual has evolved to become a useful resource for editors on points of usage including:

  • Capitalization rules and examples
  • Names, capitals, and governmental details for many of the world’s countries
  • Names of regions and geographic features
  • Geological terms

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Guide for the Use of the International System of Units (SI) is a guide to the “modern metric system.” The NIST guide includes a checklist of basic SI principles to use when editing or reviewing manuscripts. However, requirements specified by the author’s target journal overrule the conventions presented in this (or any other) guide. Some points of SI notation (e.g., detachment of the “%” sign from its number, as in “10 %”) differ from common usage (“10%”). Editors must make judgment calls and should always check the dominant usage of the target journal or publisher when settling stylistic or formatting questions.

What are style sheets? Professional editors maintain “style sheets” in which they define points of style, formatting, and usage; editors refer and add to these style sheets while working on assignments. Style sheets are personalized guides that are tailored to a specific assignment, subject area, or discipline and that provide rapid answers to formatting or other questions. Style sheets can include elements from an array of reference materials. We will discuss style sheets in more detail in a future post.

What else do style guides cover? Many style guides discuss grammar, word usage, and composition. Overlap and contradictions occur among style and usage manuals. For example, the CBE and AMA guides specify that a hyphen should be used with abbreviated units used as modifiers (e.g., 100-mL beaker), while the American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style rejects the hyphen in these cases (100 mL beaker). In such cases, the editor or writer should follow the conventions typically used in the field of study or by the target journal. We will discuss usage guides in another post.

Please take a moment to share your thoughts and comments. What style guides do you use? What advice do you have about using style guides?

Anne Altor PhD, PWS

Anne Altor

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Anne AltorStyle guides – how they can help your scientific writing

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