With the school year starting again, and all the new freshman coming in, I thought we’d take a look at the various writing styles that you’ll need to know about for your classes. There are three main styles you’ll need to be aware of: MLA, APA, and Chicago. There are other styles that specific disciplines may use, but for the most part, if you know MLA, APA, and Chicago, then you should be able to handle most classes.

So what is a writing style exactly?

Styles are the rules and conventions to follow when writing and preparing a paper either for class or publication. You may be most familiar with it this idea through citations. You’ve all probably been told before that you must cite your sources in a specific way: name, title, publication information. For many of you, that may be the extent of your knowledge about writing styles.

The truth is they are called style guides and not citation guides for a reason. The manuals to these styles contain rules or guidelines to everything you need to write a paper from formatting the headers, where to put your name, when to use numerals vs spelled-out numbers. If you’re writing a paper on Bartolomé de Las Casas and don’t know whether the de is part of the last name, your style guide can tell you. If you’re not sure if the Bible should be capitalized, italicized, in quotation marks, or all of the above, your style guide can tell you.

Why should anyone conform to a style?

Now, why does it matter if his last name is de Las Casas or Las Casas or if you think the it should be typed, “THE BIBLE”? The easy answer: your grade depends on it. You turn in something that doesn’t match any style, and your teacher can’t grade your paper the same way he/she grades all of your peers’ papers. Trust me, that’s not a good thing.

The longer, more meaningful answer is that it will make you appear literate. This is very important in the long run. No matter what field you go into, being able to present your written work in a professional way is going to be vital to your success. Whether you’re in the business world or going into social work, the sciences, education, nursing, pre-med, pre-law . . . it doesn’t matter. You must be able to present yourself according to their conventions. If you don’t, anyone who reads that will assume—right or wrong—that you have no idea what you’re talking about or are too lazy to find out. That’s not the best first impression for a prospective employer.

It also makes it easier on the reader to make quick judgments or find information if each piece they read is formatted the same. And if the person you’re submitting this to must read fifty papers, and all but yours is formatted the same, yours will be shoved to the bottom of the pile very quickly.

In the next few weeks, we’ll go over all three of the major styles that you should be aware of and how they’re different from each other. Even if your chosen field has its own style, these three are a good base to start from.