Sue Archer

Wordsmith | Editor


style sheets

Monumental Mistake or Matter of Style?

All the recent discussions around Amazon’s updated policy on error flagging have made me think about what truly constitutes an “error.” Language is fluid, and its rules of usage continue to evolve over time. What our teachers told us to do in elementary school is not always the right way to approach things today.

So how do you know whether you’re on the right track when you’re writing? When you receive your edited manuscript and it’s full of markups, is it time for you to panic? I’m sure many of us have experienced that gut-wrenching feeling of failure when we encounter all those red marks. I know I have!

This is why I like to write detailed comments as I edit — so I can explain why I’ve made a change. When I perform a stylistic/copy edit, there are a number of reasons why I mark up a manuscript, and only one of these reasons is to identify an error. Here are six other common things that can happen, which are definitely not signs that you’ve made some kind of horrendous mistake:

  1. The writing isn’t following an agreed-upon style. I’ve talked in a previous post about the value of using a style sheet, so that you and your editor can agree on various preferences around punctuation, spelling, and capitalization. The style guide that your editor follows helps them to identify and flag inconsistencies. But you shouldn’t think of these edits as corrections – you haven’t done anything wrong. It’s okay to use a serial comma, and it’s okay not to use a serial comma. But it’s best to have consistency throughout the manuscript, so that your reader doesn’t notice any variations.
  2. Unusual terms or phrases are being used. Maybe you know what that saying means, but your reader might not have heard of it. You don’t want to make your reader have to look something up or (even worse) think that you’ve made some kind of mistake. Which you haven’t – you’ve just used some words that some of your readers may not be familiar with.
  3. Your meaning is unclear. When we’re in the middle of writing, we know exactly what we are trying to convey, and we think that other people will see it the same way. But there are lots of cases where something can be interpreted in different ways. When this happens, it’s better to change the wording to make the meaning absolutely clear. What you’ve written isn’t wrong – it just happens to be representing a particular view that may not be shared.
  4. The style doesn’t suit your genre or audience. You may love using semi-colons and writing long, elaborate sentences that evoke the Victorian era. But if you’re writing a romance for a general audience, then it’s probably not the way to go, even if it’s a perfectly valid writing style.
  5. The style doesn’t suit your characters. In dialogue in particular, characters speak in ways that may or may not be “correct” based on common writing standards. This is a case where an editor may change your writing to make it grammatically incorrect on purpose — isn’t that a fun thought?
  6. You’ve used too many words. This is a very common challenge among writers. What you’ve written is perfectly fine, but it could be said in a more succinct way that captures the true essence of what you are communicating.

And here’s one final reason for marking up a manuscript that I try with all my might to avoid:

Your editor just plain doesn’t like it.

If I can’t explain the reason why I want to make a change, then I don’t make it. Like all human beings, I have my own personal stylistic preferences that influence my taste in books. But it’s my job as editor to set those preferences aside and work with the style of my author. In fact, one of the things I love about my job is that I get to experience stories being told in different and exciting ways. What a sad place the world would be if all books sounded the same because they were edited to some kind of common standard.

So before you start to feel bad about that feedback from your editor, remember:

  1. Those markups are mostly suggestions, not corrections. It’s your book – and your choice about whether to make those changes.
  2. If you’re not sure why a change was made, don’t be afraid to ask. Editors are human, too.
  3. Your style is unique to you and should be celebrated!

How do you feel when you receive a marked-up manuscript? Have you ever disagreed with someone over an “error”? Please feel free to share your thoughts below, or ask any questions about my services. I’d love to hear from you!

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How Can I Afford Professional Editing?

Today I have a guest post on Andrew Knighton’s wonderful writing blog. I am sharing some tips on how to minimize the costs of professional editing. If you’re thinking about publishing a book but have been daunted by the thought of overwhelming editing expenses, I encourage you to take a look!

Picture by Joanna Penn via Flickr Creative Commons

Why You Should Try a Style Sheet

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.

Maintaining Control

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.

Preventing Issues

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.

American quilt
A style sheet is like a quilt pattern — it pulls everything together into a coherent whole.

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?

Style Details

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?

Word List

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.

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