A style guide shows you how to properly document your research and format your paper.
The short answer: because your instructor wants you to.
Style Guides are important because they define a standard. Following the standard ensures that your paper is professional-looking and readable. It helps your instructor easily find important information like your name, your class, and your sources. Instructors read a lot of student papers each quarter. Having a standard format for papers keeps them from having to interpret a different style for each person which saves a lot of time.
The choice of style guide is often determined by what class you are in. Ask your instructor, check your syllabus, or refer to the assignment description to find out which style guide your instructor wants you to use.
The most commonly used style guides for your classes include MLA, APA, and Turabian (based on the Chicago Manual of Style).
Most bookstores, including the University Bookstore, carry these manuals.
Since you will likely need one or more of these references in your college career, we highly recommend you purchase a copy of the style guide required for your major. While buying your own copy may seem an unwelcome expense, properly documenting your sources is very important and can be quite challenging. These publications are the most complete resources available for proper documentation and can provide valuable guidance.
The Writing Center has copies of the most common academic style guides. You are welcome to use these resources on your own in the center, or you may ask at the front desk to see if a consultant is available to assist you. Copies of these guides can also be found at the University Library reference desk and at most local libraries.
The University Writing Center offers abbreviated MLA (PDF) and APA (PDF) guides. These guides contain the most basic information. You can download an electronic version by clicking on the links above. To use the file, you will need to download the Adobe Acrobat Reader if you don't already have it.
The University of Chicago Press also offers an online resource for The Chicago Manual of Style. The site features a Q&A section that is updated monthly by the manuscript editors. You can click on the Tools link to view some examples of Chicago-style documentation. The Tools section also contains a useful Quick Guide. You can also register to use their Search tool. The text of the Manual is not freely available; however, the search tool returns the relevant paragraph numbers for the physical book, so it is helpful when used with the manual.
A style guide is a reference work. Use the index to find specific information and the Table of Contents to find general sections of information.
A style guide is something you learn as you go. Even the experts need to look things up constantly. Style guides provide a lot of information and many examples, but they can't cover every documentation situation. On occasion, you will need to make choices about how to apply the rules. When in doubt, ask your instructor or talk to a Writing Center tutor. In time, the more common documentation and formatting requirements will become second nature.
Not really, no. Mastering a style guide is a matter of using it. Just like the experts, you will need to look things up often. Don't let that fact intimidate you. You can almost always find the information you need if you just have the patience to look for it.
There are a number of internet sites that offer automated assistance with documentation styles. We have not provided any links to them here because, by and large, these services often produce inaccurate listings. However, if you feel the need, it shouldn't take you long to find these resources using your favorite search engine. These automated tools may be able to produce a first draft of a Works Cited or Reference page, but they almost never get it perfect. Remember to check your work using your style manual.