Style Guides & Citations

Style guides are a collection of rules and guidelines that establish standards of grammar, punctuation, capitalization, formatting, and citation for writing. In academic writing, there are numerous style guides, each of which is commonly used by various fields of study. When creating a course, it’s important to choose and use a single style guide throughout the site.

Importance of Style Guides

There are a number of reasons to use a style guide, and it’s not just to make your friendly local copy editor happy. The most important reason to use a style guide is consistency. Course sites span multiple pages and are built over many months. Developers and designers may not remember from page to page how they formatted a citation or if, for example, they put a hyphen in the phrase “user centered design.” A style guide provides them with a single set of rules to follow, and rather than having to remember where else in the site a particular formatting convention was used, they can just reference the style guide and continue to work. This way, information is presented to students in a consistent manner across all pages of the course site. They’re able to understand and use the information faster when they don’t pause to work out the meaning of a sentence or work out where the title is in a citation.

It’s also a good idea to use a style guide in order to model good academic writing to your students. This is doubly important for classes in which students are expected to write papers and cite their sources. Faculty should model the kind of citations they want to see students turn in. This reinforces the standards laid out in a rubric, and there’s no confusion when students look between their style guide and the course site.

Choosing a Style Guide

There are a wide variety of style guides available, and it can be difficult to determine which one to use. The following is a list of the most common and widely used style guides, along with information on the disciplines that tend to use them.

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.

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, many faculty in the Global Health program use 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.