The Importance of Style

by Christine Scherer

What is style?

For most people, “writing style” refers to the way a particular author writes–short sentences, flowery adjectives, or a conversational tone. Readers could never mistake Shakespeare for Hemingway or J.K. Rowling for C.S. Lewis.

For editors, however, writing style means “the rules or guidelines a publisher observes to ensure clear, consistent presentation.” (APA Style Guide, p. 87) Style encompasses things like citation formatting, grammar, punctuation, numbers, spelling, abbreviations, and so on. While many people associate style guides with publications like journal articles or books, style is just as important when writing online, and especially in course sites.

Why does it matter?


The main reason that style matters is for consistency. Publishers of books or journals want readers to have a consistent experience, even if the content is written by different authors or across long periods of time. Variations in spelling, formatting, or presentation can be distracting at best and cause confusion at worst. Readers shouldn’t be thinking about punctuation or spelling–they should be focused on the content of what they’re reading.

This is just as true in online courses. Course sites span numerous web pages and are developed over a long period of time; style choices made in Module One may have been long since forgotten by Module Six. Using a style guide means that developers and designers don’t have to remember what they chose–they can just reference the style guide.

For example, imagine that you’re teaching a class in which the primary textbook is Architects of the New World by E. Fisher, published in 2006. There are readings assigned from this textbook throughout the course, and you type up each reading list as you develop the modules. Across the different modules, the assigned readings start to look like this:

  • Module One: Fisher, p. 1-15
  • Module Three: Architects, p. 23-50
  • Module Four: Fisher, E. (2006.) Architects of the New World. pp. 60-100
  • Module Seven: Fisher 2006, p 102-140
  • Module Nine: Architects, p. 175-200

If you only have one work by this author and only one book with “architects” in the title, the students will probably be able to figure out which reading each of these refer to. But it could create confusion, and it will certainly be distracting. Selecting a style for formatting reading assignments and using it throughout the course removes these hurdles and makes the site easier to engage with.

Setting an Example

Another key reason to use a consistent style throughout the course is to set an example for students. For virtually any written assignment, the rubric will include points assigned to grammar and punctuation, and will often require students to provide citations in a particular style. Instructors should be modeling the quality of writing that they expect from their students. It may come across as hypocritical to penalize students for not meeting standards of style and citation when the course site itself doesn’t meet the standards. Modeling professional standards of writing will only help your students–not just at Northwestern, but in their careers.

What style to use?

Figuring out a style guide to follow can seem like a daunting task. There are numerous style guides available, and there’s no master rulebook dictating when to use each. (Writing and editing would be a lot easier if there were!) In general, though, style guides are affiliated with broad fields of study and research. When in doubt, turn to publications within your field and find out what style guide they rely on.

Below is a partial list of style guides, along with some of their associated fields. This can help you to select the style guide that is best for your course.

APA Style

Published by the American Psychological Association (APA), the APA Style Guide (6th ed.) is the standard guide for behavioral & social sciences. This includes psychology, sociology, political science, education, business, and more. It is also the default guide used for Northwestern University SPS course sites. If a style guide is not specified by the faculty, this is the guide that the site will be checked with. The IDS, MPPA, MSA, and MSRC programs all use APA style.

Chicago Style

The Chicago Manual of Style, written and published by the University of Chicago Press, is used in many fields, and is probably one of the most extensive and detailed English language style guides currently available. It is broadly accepted in many academic fields; however, some academic fields may prefer that writers use a more focused guide (APA for social sciences, Lancet or AMA for medicine, etc.).


The Lancet style guide, developed by the Lancet Journals, is used in some medical fields. At SPS, the Global Health program uses this style.


The Modern Language Association style guide is most commonly used within liberal arts and humanities. It is not commonly used outside of those fields, however, and may cause confusion if used in a business technology course, for example.

If you have questions about style in your course site, please contact Content Specialist Christine Scherer.

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