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Style Sheets—The Setup and the Benefits

July 12, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified July 12, 2011

You may or may not be familiar with style sheets, but you might find them beneficial as you write or edit.

A style sheet is simply a statement and a reflection of the style standards and practices of a publisher of newspapers, books, or magazines.

One publishing house may adhere to recommendations from the Chicago Manual of Style and a newspaper may follow the Associated Press’s guide. But both may have special rules and recommendations for specific instances, in-house rules that they recommend for their writers.

Depending on the publisher, some items from a style sheet might be absolute rules and some might be strong recommendations. A writer or editor might be able to make a case for a usage contrary to the publisher’s recommendation or accepted practice. The writer or editor can always ask or challenge a standard practice.

These recommendations, both in-house and not, make up the publisher’s style guide or style sheet.

Style sheets inform writers and editors about spelling, punctuation, and capitalization practices so a manuscript can be consistent within itself as well as match the style of the publication.

Yet writers and editors don’t have to rely solely on a publisher’s style guide. Instead, they can put together their own style sheet for their manuscripts.

If you’re a plotter, you may have written a detailed spreadsheet listing scene layout, plot threads, and character traits, physical description, and history. But even plotters can benefit from a style sheet.

A style sheet can help writers and editors maintain consistency and help them reduce errors in story details.

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How to set up a style sheet
Since I edit from hard copy, I create a style sheet on a sheet of paper rather than using a spreadsheet on the computer. (I do, however, copy the details to a spreadsheet when I share them with clients.) Use whatever method, paper or computer, that works for you.

If you use the paper method, simply draw a horizontal line across the center of one side of the paper (think landscape view rather than portrait). Then draw three vertical lines from top to bottom to divide the page into eight boxes.

Flip the paper over. Draw another horizontal line across the page, yet do it a little higher than center on this side (you’ll need more room in the boxes at the bottom of the page). Divide the top section into three or four boxes. The bottom section may have two or three or four different-sized boxes. (The setup is virtually the same for a spreadsheet done on the computer.)

Mark the eight boxes on the first page and those on the top of the second page with groups of letters in alphabetical order. Put A/B or A/B/C at the top of the first box, C/D or D/E/F in the second box and so on until you’ve covered all the letters and used all the boxes. 

You’ll be entering words based on their first letters into these boxes.

Why? To keep track of odd spellings or words that you make up. To list titles or place names used in the manuscript. To keep up with oddities of any kind from the manuscript. To create a reference document so that anyone working on the manuscript can see exactly how words should be spelled or capped or hyphenated or abbreviated.

Title columns at the bottom of page two with Characters, Punctuation, Numbers, and Miscellaneous. The column for characters may require the most space; you might not need a separate column for numbers. If you’ve got another column option, feel free to include it.

What to include
Include any item or topic for which the writer or editor must make a decision. Remember that the style sheet is an aid for consistency. A writer might use it as a reminder for herself as she writes and edits or she might pass it on to her copy editor at a publishing house. An editor might use her own style sheet to show a writer what choices she made while editing.

Use a style sheet to—

~  List character names in the character column with the first spelling you find for each and the page number of the first use of each name. If there are different spellings, note the differences and the page number of the first usage of each different spelling.

~  List punctuation rules—serial comma or no serial comma, em dash rather than parentheses, and so on, whatever you’ve decided you’ll use for the manuscript.

~  Spell out the rules for using numerals and words for numbers. Will it be numerals for all numbers greater than nine or will your cut-off be ninety-nine?

~  Note if which is acceptable in place of that for American English restrictive clauses.

~  Note whether a mix of British English and American English spellings is acceptable or if it’s necessary to choose one style.

~  Show how contractions will be used, if they’ll be used. Might all characters except for one use contractions? Are any contractions unacceptable?

~  Spell out uses of quotation marks and/or italics, especially for unusual words or for emphasis or for words used as words.

~  List acceptable dialogue tags other than said or asked, if there are any. Or list unacceptable dialogue tags.

~  List any limits on curse words, either by word or use by specific characters.

~  Show correct spelling of unusual or made-up words.

~  List abbreviations. List words that are always capped.

~  List hyphenated words or unusual compound words.

~  List oddities in grammar or punctuation, especially anything outside standard usage. If the writer wants a knowingly different usage, be sure to include a note about that unusual usage.

~  List foreign words.

~  Note anything unusual that the writer or copy editor should know about, anything that would enhance consistency if followed throughout the story or that would challenge the suspension of disbelief if not followed.

Most of these suggestions are geared toward a fiction manuscript, but you can also include notes for non-fiction works. For example, spell out the procedures for labeling graphs or images, explain layout, include standards for headings and titles, and make clear how scientific notation and definitions will be written.

Make a note in the style sheet for the unusual or use the style sheet to tell the writer about grammar, punctuation, or spelling rules he might not know. For example—

Write words for numbers and symbols in dialogue rather than using numerals and the symbols themselves.

Use ellipsis for dialogue that trails off, em dash for dialogue that’s cut off.

Use a comma to separate names in dialogue from the rest of the dialogue when a character is being addressed.

“I warned you, Syd. Now it’s too late.”

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A style sheet is easy to fill out. Easy to forget to fill out as well, unfortunately. But it can be highly useful for both writers and editors, especially as a writing project nears completion.

Writers, you might not want to start your style sheet until after you’ve written the first draft. Working on one before that point might get in the way of your creativity. Of course, if keeping up with the details helps you as you write, by all means begin the style sheet with your first page.

Do consider adding a style sheet to your writing tasks. Don’t feel that you must start it early in the project.

If you’re a freelance editor, there’s no consideration about it; prepare a style sheet for your clients. Show them how consistency can be worked into their manuscripts.

Give them one more tool for writing better fiction.

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Tags: , ,     Posted in: Editing Tips, For Editors, Writing Tips

12 Responses to “Style Sheets—The Setup and the Benefits”

  1. Nick Daws says:

    Another excellent article – thank you. I did just want to ask about one thing, which is where under punctuation rules you state ‘em dash rather than parentheses’. I would have thought it was possible to use both in a document rather than having to pick one or the other. To my mind, em dashes give a little more emphasis to the words contained within them compared with parenthetical brackets.

  2. Nick, I was using that as an example should the writer or editor choose to go in that direction. Sometimes you might want to use one rather than the other for a consistent look to the manuscript. If you do want to play up one option, use the style sheet to let others know what you’ve done. If you decide to use dashes rather than parentheses—or vice versa—in only specific cases, indicate that in the style sheet as well.

    But you’re right—em dashes do indicate a stronger emphasis. Yet visually, parentheses are more noticeable to me. For some reason I’m often slowed when I see parentheses.

    For those wondering about the use of commas rather than either parentheses or the em dash, yes, commas can also work. However, use commas when you don’t want the digression or parenthetical phrase to take on too much importance. Or, conversely, if the phrase is important and/or needs to stand out, use punctuation stronger than commas.

    In fiction, we’ll most often want the flow to remain uninterrupted. Yet the use of punctuation allows us the freedom to add emphasis as needed. As with any element of writing, just don’t overdo.

  3. Jen j says:

    This is great information, coming at a perfect point in my manuscript. The chronological order and grouping sounds logical and efficient. Thanks!

  4. This is great information to have. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Bianca, I’m glad you found something you could use.

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Pings and Trackbacks

  1. […] Of the two books, I have to admit my favorite section is Webster’s presentation of how to make your own style sheet. I don’t have permission to quote from it. Happily, there’s a great online reference explaining how to make one on The Editor’s Blog. […]

  2. […] all tools come can be bought. For example, a style sheet is a useful tool for a writing team. It might be something the team develops over time during […]

  3. […] time the circumstances are the same. Include unusual words or special treatment of words in your style sheet so everyone dealing with your manuscript works from the same […]

  4. […] Creating a written style-sheet, just like real editors and proofreaders do. […]

  5. […] Then the key is to remember which style you chose for each situation. That’s where a style sheet comes in. You can design your own. Set categories or list the points alphabetically–whatever works for you. Consistency in your writing is imperative–and the style guide can help you with that consistency. Here’s a helpful post about style sheets on The Editor’s Blog. […]