Decoding style

Have you ever wondered what dictates whether you should indent a paragraph, or use a two-letter abbreviation for states and how you should format a date?

Furthermore, does anyone care? YES! A resounding, YES! A lot of us do!

There is, in fact, a secret code. It is called a Style Manual and there are more than a dozen of them.

I mentioned in an earlier blog that, behind the scenes, Word is quite sophisticated. This is just one example.

Tucked away in a menu panel that you may not have ever even looked at is the Citations & Bibliography panel.

Don’t stop reading if you think you will never use them. I’ll tell you why in a minute. But, first, I’m going to take you on a fieldtrip.

Click on the References menu tab. (Double-click if it keeps disappearing on you.)

The third panel is Citations & Biography. In this panel, you’ll see the word Style and probably the word “APA” and maybe a couple more characters on a dropdown menu.

Click on the dropdown menu and take a look at what is there.

Word knows how to format according to 14 different style manuals. And, yes, there are slight differences between each.

No, that’s not the fieldtrip.

Follow my link to OWL to join me on this fieldtrip.

We are going to visit the Online Writing Lab at Perdue University. If you ever have a question about to format some bit of text, this is one of the very best sources you will find.

In spite of 14 different frequently used style manuals, APA and MLA are the most common. Have you ever wondered whether you should put the name of a book in quotation marks, or in italics? Look at a style manual for the answer.

The MLA (Modern Language Association) style guide is used for literature. “All research papers on literature use MLA format.”

APA (American Psychological Association) is the style preferred for by the social sciences.

If you aren’t sure which to use and you are not writing for a professional journal or a dissertation, just pick one—and stick to it throughout your work. Universities and publishers make it known which of the 14 style manuals to use.

You’ll find things like when to use a comma, whether to put a comma inside or outside of a quotation mark and a myriad of other things.

And, you will find instructions on whether to indent the first line of a paragraph, or not, and by how much. The answer? It varies depending on the type of writing you are doing.

Does it matter? It very well may to your reader. Like me.

Style manuals in the digital age

One of my favorite things about References is the Style dropdown menu. You can choose a Style and a popup window will appear with fields you fill in with the title, author, etc. Then Word automatically formats the information for you and, if you want, it can insert it into your document. It is always formatted correctly, according to the Style you choose.

I write primarily non-fiction so I frequently create citations, footnotes, and bibliographies. So this is useful. But there is an even easier way to do it.


Do less typing. Use Worldcat to format your source for you. finds media. It is primarily books, but it will also correctly format a reference to a website, a movie, and other forms of media. It is surprisingly thorough and it lets you choose which of 5 different formatting styles to use.

Let’s choose the book Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience.

All you have to do is type the word “Flow” in the WorldCat search box. You’ll see the book we are looking for, not far down the page. Click on it.

The entry of this book comes up, along with a list of libraries where you will find a copy. In the upper right-hand corner, you’ll see a clickable option Cite/Export. Click on that.

A popup menu will appear, listing five different style manuals.

Let’s click on APA (6th ed.). (Not sure whether to spell out a number or use the numeral instead? The answer is in a style manual.)

A dropdown panel appears, with the source perfectly formatted.

  • Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row.

Highlight the text. Copy it. Paste it into your Word document.

When the popup icon appears asking how you want to paste it, choose Match Formatting (usually).

Word really does go out of its way to help you format text. It’s clever that the Reference formatting is built in. But, sometimes you need a little different formatting information. That’s when you turn to your style manual, or OWL.