Yea, though I walk through the valley of death, I fear no manuscript, for I carry a style manual.
Updated: Aug 15, 2023
What are style guides? How are they helpful to authors? Why do scientific journals and publishers adopt them?
I am a freelance editor of scientific and medical manuscripts, including scientific journal articles, NIH grant applications, academic monographs (books), and clinical study reports. The publishers of these manuscripts typically adopt and follow the style guidelines of well-known style manuals such as The AMA Manual of Style, or they follow their own in-house style guide. Some peer-reviewed journals, publishers, academic institutions, or regulatory agencies ask authors to follow a specific style manual or an in-house style guide, and some give authors a choice to follow whatever style guide they prefer so long as they consistently apply it throughout the manuscript.
One of the first things I do while editing a manuscript is determine the style manual that the author, publisher or journal wants me to follow. When I query some authors about the style manual they prefer, they are puzzled about what a style manual is. So I thought it could be helpful to explain why style guides are followed and why they are useful. Style guides help authors consistently use language and non-textual elements (tables, graphs, etc.) throughout their manuscript. Style guides provide clear rules on grammar, spelling, word usage, technical nomenclature, punctuation, capitalization, abbreviation, hyphenation, italics, formatting, acronyms, initialisms, numbers, data, tables, figures, titles and headings, to name a few topics. In sum, style guides help authors make their writing more clear, concise, coherent, and consistent.
Style guidelines are based on language conventions that change and are updated over time. In fact, because style guidelines are based on conventions, they may sometimes seem arbitrary or illogical to authors, consequently some language issues are contested and controversial. Yet the value of following a style manual is that it allows authors more easily navigate the many style choices, including controversial or uncertain language issues, that they encounter while writing a scientific manuscript.
My impression is that most researchers are, rightfully, more concerned about sharing their research findings, and a little less concerned about language issues, so it’s easy for them to overlook issues that can result in inconsistency in the language. So, for example, an author may not capitalize a term in some parts of a manuscript, then capitalize the term in another part of the text, and then capitalize and boldface the text, and then return to not capitalizing or boldfacing it later in the text. In some cases the readers may be confused and wonder if these different forms of the term refer to different entities, when in fact the author was just applying capitalization and boldface rules inconsistently. Another example could be sometimes presenting numbers as in a word form (nine) and other times as a numeral form (9). There are specific rules that different style guides adopt regarding presenting numbers as words or numerals, and publishers and journals expect authors to follow these rules. In the best case scenario, inconsistently applying a confused mixture of style rules can be distracting to your reader, and in the worst case, it can confuse the meaning of your writing and instill doubts about the quality of the research and findings. It begs the question: If the authors didn’t carefully edit the language of the manuscript, did they carefully carry out their research? If your readers have doubts about the validity of your findings, inconsistencies and errors with the language can increase their doubts.
If your manuscript has a high incidence of language errors, irregularities, redundancy, ambiguity, or nonstandard, nonessential or awkward word forms, this distracts readers. Any language issue that interrupts the smooth easy flow and comprehension of meaning and makes readers pause and uncertain should be avoided. Language issues bring attention to themselves when the readers full attention should be on the message you want to communicate. Yet often authors are not able to see language issues or know how to easily correct them. This is how aprofessional copy editor could be helpful: they bring a fresh set of eyes to your manuscript and show you something you may not have seen. They are also well-versed in the rules of style manuals, including minutiae about language and mechanics that many researchers don’t have time or interest in studying.
A professional copyeditor can align your manuscript with style manuals such as the American Medical Association’s Manual of Style, the IEEE Editorial Style Manual, the Scientific Style & Format: Council of Science Editors, The Chicago Manual of Style, the American Psychological Association Style Manual, NLM Citing Medicine, the American Chemical Society’s Style Guide, the Oxford Style Manual, and Cochrane Manual of Style. Check out this page for comprehensive list of the style manuals manuscript. Please let me know if you have any questions about style manuals that I might be able to answer.
Photo from a family camping trip at Death Valley National Park