Style Sheets and How to Use Them
Every editor has his or her own working process. When I first started out as a freelance editor, I would open a new Notepad file before I began editing or proofreading a manuscript. As I would progress through the edit, I made note of every character name and location I came across, as well as any significant details that were important about each one. For example, I’d write, “John Smith - corporal, brown hair.” It was nothing fancy, but it was helpful when I came across the character name again. If the author referred to him as Sergeant Smith with no mention of a promotion, I could assume that this was a mistake in rank. Later on, I learned that what I had been doing in Notepad was creating a rudimentary style sheet.
WHAT’S A STYLE SHEET?
A style sheet is a useful tool for authors and editors alike, which essentially outlines the formatting, layout, spellings, and preferences for a specific manuscript. Examples of what can be listed in a style sheet include:
Whether or not serial commas will be used
Spelling preferences and hyphenations
How thoughts are stylized
Character names and descriptions
There is no right or wrong way to create a style sheet, and the information contained within one is up to the user. It can be done with pen and paper or electronically. If you’d like to see the template I use while editing, click on the icon at the end of this post to download a free copy in Microsoft Word. Feel free to customize it to fit your needs.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF USING A STYLE SHEET?
As an author, you may have never heard of a style sheet, or maybe it’s just come in a different form. Some authors meticulously sort every detail of their manuscript into an Excel spreadsheet. Others jot down some major plot points to keep them on track. Still others may keep everything in their head. Whatever your method, it may be helpful to create a style sheet as a reference for yourself and for your editor. Ways in which a style sheet can be beneficial:
It can keep you organized. Instead of having information scattered around on different bits of paper (or not at all), write it all in your style sheet as an easy way to look back on key plot points, spellings, or character names.
It helps maintain consistency. Was the main character’s cousin’s name spelled Elizabeth or Elisabeth earlier in the book? Was it punctuated as F.B.I. or FBI? It’s important to stay consistent because readers will pick up on errors, and it’s often difficult to remember everything you’ve already written. This is especially critical if you’re writing a series. Having a style sheet for every manuscript allows you to compare from one book to the next.
You can share it with your editor. As an editor, it’s extremely advantageous to receive a style sheet from an author. It reduces the amount of questions I’ll have about why you chose to do something or spell a word a specific way. It also tells me immediately what to look out for if something is different from what’s recorded on the style sheet.
If I don’t receive a style sheet from an author, I create one based on their manuscript and share it with them. This not only provides them with a valuable tool, it also explains why I made the changes I made. If I add a serial comma, I don’t have to explain why I did so if the style sheet says that serial commas are used.
Whether you use a style sheet is up to you. If you haven’t been using one, I encourage you to try it out!