A style sheet is a critical tool that an editor uses to maintain consistency throughout a manuscript. Style sheets are not just for editors, though — writers also benefit from using them, both during the self-editing stage and when collaborating with a professional editor.
What exactly is a style sheet?
A style sheet is a place for capturing stylistic decisions on items such as spelling, capitalization, and punctuation. A style sheet is used by an editor to confirm that the appropriate style is being applied consistently throughout the entire work. The editor refers to it constantly, checking for accurate spelling and capitalization on all key terms and validating all stylistic decisions.
A style sheet is typically in the form of a simple text document. It consists of three main pieces:
- An overview, which describes the work being edited and any style guides or dictionaries that will be used while editing.
- Details on decisions relating to capitalization, punctuation, and other stylistic concerns (such as the use of abbreviations and italics).
- A list of important words, including all proper names and unusual terms.
Why should I use a style sheet?
Supporting Quality and Consistency
By using a style sheet as part of your self-editing process, you can catch errors in the names of characters and places and smooth out any consistency issues that may jar your readers.
Style sheets are particularly valuable for authors who are writing a series. Once a style sheet is established for the first book, it can then be applied to future works.
With a traditionally published book, it’s the publisher who decides what style should be used in the manuscript, and the resulting rules are applied to the style sheet. Self-publishing authors, in contrast, have the freedom to decide how they want their writing to look. That’s not to say that their editors can’t provide stylistic advice — they definitely should — but the author has the final say.
When you provide your work to an editor without a style sheet and don’t make your preferences clear from the beginning, it will be harder for you to maintain stylistic control. Your editor has to guess at your stylistic preferences based on what he or she finds in the manuscript.
Your editor may have different ideas about style than you do. When you get your manuscript back, you don’t want to find out that some of your carefully capitalized words have been painstakingly lower-cased or that American spelling has been applied when most of your readers are in the UK. This will mean extra work for both you and your editor, which could result in higher fees. It pays to think up front about any preferences you may have, and call them out.
So how do I get started?
You may not have specific preferences about all the stylistic elements that an editor deals with. However, there are some common elements that you should probably think about (and write down on that style sheet). Please feel free to use my Style Sheet Template to capture your thoughts.
Overall Style Preference
Do you want your editor to use a specific style guide? The Chicago Manual of Style, for example, is a popular style guide for trade books.
Should American, British, Canadian, or another spelling style be applied?
Are there words that need to be capitalized even though they are usually in lower case?
When should italics be used?
Do you have any preferences for the use of commas in certain situations (such as whether to use the serial comma)?
Do you have any preferences about the formatting of other punctuation marks, such as dashes or ellipses?
Have you noted all the following in an alphabetical word list?
- People / character names
- Place names
- Words that have unusual treatment (such as capitalization or abbreviation)
- Rare or difficult words
- Invented words
With these questions answered, you have the makings of a good style sheet. Now it’s time to chat with your editor and make sure you are both on the same page.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
If you have used a style sheet, did you find it helpful?
If you haven’t, do you plan to use one? I encourage you to take a look at my Style Sheet Template to help get you started.
I’m happy to answer any of your questions about style sheets – just leave a comment below.