STYLE IS A STICKY SUBJECT, perhaps especially when it comes to writing. The term is commonly used to gesture toward that bit of composition that both exceeds and augments meaning: that flourish, however ornate or austere, that makes a sentence something more than just declarative. Style in writing is celebrated for transcending the expected, even where that style is described as “plain”; style is the thing that makes an interesting-enough idea resonate long after we’ve read it. Style plays an outsized role in what attracts us to one writer but not another. Style is what makes our common language our own, that sets our writing apart from the average.
Academic style, however, is another thing entirely. This is not to say that there is not “style” in academic writing, contrary to both popular belief and a lot of self-skewering academic jokes. Academic style is dull, jargon-filled, overly ornate, hubristic, timid, and generally bad, and no one says so more than academics themselves. Eric Hayot dug into this reflexive disdain in a recent essay in the journal Critical Inquiry, exploring the oddities of the ways that literary scholars seem to think about scholarly writing, pointing out that “it’s weird for a profession to have one theory of language for its objects and another for its products.” If scholars genuinely care about academic writing, Hayot suggests, we might begin by giving up our contempt for the aspects that make it uniquely our own.
But “academic style” has another meaning beyond, or perhaps even in contradiction to, the common. Academic style is less that which makes a piece of writing unique than it is that which makes a piece of writing conform. Style, in the academic sense, is a set of recognizable professional conventions that create a framework within which writers stake their claims to original thought. These conventions include things as general as the structure of documents or as specific as the uses of quotations. Most importantly for my purposes, academic style includes a set of rules for including and structuring citations; were this publication an academic journal, you’d have seen a little “(68)” in the previous paragraph, or perhaps a “1,” depending on the particular style guide that the journal followed, leading you to more information about the source of that quotation.
Though most academic style guides seek to help scholars achieve clarity throughout their writing, each of the major guides, when referred to in shorthand — Chicago style; MLA style — is overwhelmingly identified with their rules for the citations that document a piece of writing’s sources. Style guides have their origins, perhaps unsurprisingly, in publishers’ desire for consistency, but the conventions described in those guides rapidly spread throughout the academic environment. The University of Chicago Press likely produced the first style guide in the United States when it turned its in-house rules for editors and compositors into a pamphlet distributed across the campus; by 1906 that pamphlet had grown into the first edition of today’s Manual of Style. That style was adapted for student writers by Kate Turabian, the graduate school’s dissertation secretary, beneath whose gaze every dissertation accepted at the University of Chicago between 1930 and 1958 was required to pass. Her guide was published in 1937 as A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations. Besides Chicago and Turabian, many other academic styles are in wide use, including APA (mostly employed in the social and behavioral sciences) and MLA (widely used throughout the humanities). A close examination of each of these styles might reveal something about their fields’ guiding principles: endnote-based styles want documentation present but tucked discreetly away from the main text, author-date styles predominate in fields that privilege recentness, and so on.
Students learn the rules for citation practice at various points in their academic careers: as they begin to write research papers in elementary and secondary school; as they are introduced to the expectations for college-level writing in first-year composition classes; as they enter new fields of study and learn the conventions that are peculiar to each. Those conventions are quite different from field to field, but they share enough in common that one would be justified in arguing that the thing that makes academic writing academic is not its subject matter, its vocabulary, or its syntax, but rather its requirements for citations.
Citations in academic writing, not unlike those in legal writing, are intended to refer the questioning reader back to the sources or precedents for the argument at hand. This is in part driven by a desire to give credit where credit is due: by citing those who have influenced us, we acknowledge their work and its role in our own. But citation serves more purposes than simply naming the giants on whose shoulders we find ourselves standing. Citations, in fact, play much the same role for the humanities that enumerating the details of laboratory procedures used in experiments plays for the sciences. An odd assertion, no doubt, but here’s what I mean: the validity of scientific work hangs on what is often popularly referred to as its reproducibility, the notion that you could obtain the same results by following the same procedures. This reproducibility is perhaps more accurately and evocatively described as falsifiability — the more skeptical, but more important sense that you could follow those procedures, or perhaps some better procedures, and wind up disproving the hypothesis in question. In this same way, research in the humanities exposes the details of its procedures via citation such that it too might be rendered falsifiable. Readers can return to the sources in question and render their own better interpretations of them. Academic writing becomes academic, in other words, precisely when it exposes its process to future correction.
All of our current citation formats were invented for a print-based universe, in which each book or article gave the impression of standing alone. Bibliographic notes and markers connect these many individual texts into a broader, ongoing conversation. But now that we live in a world in which no text need be an island, in which scholarly publications are increasingly delivered digitally and so can be literally interconnected via links and embeds, it is reasonable to ask whether citations are still necessary.
Tim Parks has argued — and is far from alone in doing so — that the apparatus of scholarly citation is a pointless burden in the age of Google, and that writers should merely incorporate their borrowings, trusting readers’ abilities to track down the originals as needed. Search engines, so the argument goes, can more reliably and seamlessly lead us back to the source of a quotation, or near enough to it. The antiquated system of references scholars employ — hyperlinking avant la lettre — has become less a means of connecting texts and more a stumbling point for readers (and worse, maybe, a pointless roadblock for writers). Why not simply let the webbiness of the web do its work, and leave it at that?
One good reason, of course, is the work that the web has already done: the digital textual landscape has produced a proliferation of copies with varying degrees of reliability. And search engines, for all their utility, are not terribly good at discerning distinctions that actually do make a difference. So when a reader searches for a quotation, she is likely to turn up not just the original source of that quotation but also a host of copies, borrowings, and reuses, texts in which that quotation appears but from which it did not originate. Even when the search turns up the proper source, it might not turn up the proper edition of the source, and for scholars, that level of distinction very often matters. In order to ensure that Reader B has every possibility of seeing the same thing in a source text that Reader A saw, B needs to know whether A read the edition of a book published in 1819 or the revised edition published in 1831, or whether A read an article as originally printed in the journal or as it was repackaged for inclusion in a later edited volume. Much like the situation in a laboratory, these variables matter, and so this level of precision in their citation matters.
If anything, the reference system provided by a good citation style has come to matter even more in the age of the internet, rather than being rendered obsolete by the seemingly infinite networking and searchability of texts and other cultural resources online. Things migrate with great fluidity these days: that article might still be associated with the journal in which it was published, but it’s very likely been found through an online journal aggregator like JSTOR, and that might make a difference to a future researcher trying to track down a source. A book might be consulted not in print but through Google Books, and knowing that might provide information about anomalies in the source. A television episode watched through a streaming service like Netflix might have features that the originally aired version did not. And so on: publications and other cultural objects are no longer quite as fixed in format as they were, and their very malleability may heighten the importance for future scholars of knowing precisely which version today’s researcher consulted.
And that’s the key thing: no matter how backward-looking citations may appear, in their fastidious recounting of the publication history of past sources, they are in fact always future-oriented, communicating information that may be necessary for a reader in a situation that we cannot yet fully imagine. Citations are the highway markers of an ongoing conversation, one that does not end with the text presently being written, but that has the potential to stretch both forward in time and outward in unexpected directions. Any given scholarly exchange could result not just in the rebuttal of prior arguments but in those arguments’ potential recirculation and reinterpretation in the context of another scholar’s work.
The irony of citations, however, is that they run the risk of interrupting the very conversation that they mark, as if highway signs were interesting and detailed enough to divert your attention from the road. Over the years, scholars, publishers, and professional societies have found ways to make citations less intrusive, keeping the information they provide waiting quietly on the edges of the text until their guidance is needed. The footnote — or its easier-to-typeset cousin, the endnote — may at first glance appear to be the most retiring of documentation forms, leaving behind only a tiny marker in the text to guide the reader down the referential rabbit hole, should she choose to follow. These notes have their dangers, though. On the one hand, they run the risk of being overlooked entirely. On the other, they place so little information within the text that the interested reader may feel herself constantly interrupted, chasing one citation after another and leaving the thread of the argument behind.
In contrast to foot- or endnote based styles are those that employ abbreviated, parenthetical textual markers, providing just enough in-line information that a reader can recognize and perhaps contextualize the source in question. MLA style, which is of course developed by my own organization, the Modern Language Association of America, uses the author’s name and, usually, the page on which the information in question falls, while styles such as APA use the author’s name and the date of publication. Both styles for in-text citations are designed to guide the reader who wants more information to the appropriate entry in a list of full bibliographic citations at the end of the text, while allowing other readers simply to acknowledge the source and continue the current line of thought.
But these bibliographic entries are of course the aspect of documentation style that produce the greatest level of writer irritation, as they require what often feels like a forbidding level of detail and a fussy mode of organization. And this, perhaps, is where citation practices could most benefit from a bit of intervention and rethinking in the digital age. The problem is visible in the increasing heft of all of the major style manuals: each publication type has a prescriptive format, and as publication types and communication platforms multiply, new formats have to be added to each style’s endless taxonomy. Writers need to know how to cite an ebook, how to cite a tweet, how to cite an Instagram image, how to cite — no, seriously, my office actually received this inquiry — a book that a player reads within the action of a video game. At some point, the process of developing and disseminating all of these citation formats runs the risk of creating a map that is larger and more complex than the terrain through which it attempts to guide writers and readers. And this is the point at which academic writers understandably begin to grumble about citations being outdated and unnecessary anyhow.
I am convinced that it is possible to get rid of the murky bathwater without disposing of the baby. Citation practices can instead be future-proofed, both so that the markers authors leave behind today continue to point in the proper directions tomorrow and so that style manuals needn’t grow endlessly complex. The key is finding ways to turn our attention away from formats and toward frameworks — simple, repeatable frameworks that convey, at a glance, the information necessary to direct a reader seamlessly to any source, in any medium.
This is what we’ve done in the newest edition of the MLA Handbook. The Handbook had grown dense and forbidding as formats accrued, but it was nonetheless the authoritative guide to MLA style, the arbiter of correctness in humanities-based citation practices. In creating this new edition, we took the opportunity to put all of the rules aside and imagine how we’d create an entirely new style today, from the ground up. And the result is a much slimmed-down, much friendlier guide that establishes a set of general principles for creating documentation and then explains their application in a wide range of ways, demonstrating a flexibility that works with rather than against writers’ instincts about what’s important and what’s not.
Perhaps more importantly, though, it works to refocus attention on the reasons citation practices were invented in the first place: to enable disparate pieces of scholarly writing to be connected with one another, and to communicate those connections reliably, simply, and clearly. Our hope is that ours might be the first manual that makes the academic style guide seem less like a misnomer, and more like a set of natural practices through which scholars can help organize the often unruly publications by which we are increasingly surrounded.