In reviewing a draft of an upcoming project, I suggested to a client that she create an editorial style sheet before handing her manuscript off for editing. The project presented loads of data in a similar format over and over, but I noticed inconsistencies in how the same type of information was treated in different locations.
By adhering to a style sheet, the manuscript would be cleaner for the editor, avoiding time (and money) spent on flagging errors that could easily have been addressed before the handoff.
While editors use style sheets regularly, writers can benefit from using this handy tool too.
What is an editorial style sheet?
An editorial style sheet is a list of decisions about the standards followed in editing a manuscript. A style sheet helps create a consistent, coherent experience for a book’s readers.
I liken a style sheet to a corporate branding guide—those nitpicky manuals that provide rules about what is allowed and not allowed in communications: fonts and colors, treatment of the company’s name, how trademarks are to be displayed, and so on. These tomes can seem tedious, but they enable consistent branding and messaging to customers.
Most editors use a couple of default references for core editorial standards. At Clear Sight Books, we typically use Merriam-Webster for spelling and The Chicago Manual of Style for grammar, style, usage, and so on.
But these references sometimes give multiple options, and they sometimes simply say to pick what works best for your book and be consistent with it. Additionally, every book has its own quirks, so every book essentially needs its own mini rulebook—the style sheet.
What goes in a style sheet?
There are no hard and fast rules about what to put in a style sheet. While there are likely to be some common elements, the most important thing is to document rules that might be confusing or decisions that could be easily forgotten.
At Clear Sight Books, while we start with Chicago and M-W for standards, we also go to other sources. For example, we might visit the Cambridge Dictionary for British English, The Christian Writer’s Manual of Style for religious terminology, or something like the US Army’s style guide for proper military style.
If you are intentionally breaking the rules, make a note of it. Sometime style guides and dictionaries have rules that seem out of date or illogical for a particular book. For example, M-W used to capitalize “Internet” and use a hyphen in “e-mail”—both of which I refused to do (“internet” and “email” for me).
When there are multiple correct answers, document what you choose. Will you use a serial comma or not? Do you prefer “toward” or “towards,” “OK” or “okay”?
Most books have a set of terms that are specific to that book. For example, a book on spirituality might need clarification on standards for capitalizing different words for “God.” Perhaps you capitalize “the Universe” and “the Divine” but not “universal” or “divinity.” A financial book may need clarification on “percent” versus “percentage.”
If names are repeated throughout a manuscript, it may help to have a list so the spelling remains correct throughout. In a memoir, you might document family members. If you are writing a book about basketball, you might document the names of teams, schools, and organizations (e.g., NCAA).
There are a surprising number of rules about numbers, and there is a surprising amount of flexibility in which rules to follow. While in general writing, numbers might not pop up much, consider all the potential numbers in a financial book, a science book, and a sports book. While in a general text you might normally write “2 percent” (spelling out the word percent), in a financial book it might make more sense to use “2%” (using the symbol). The symbol may work better if you’re constantly referring to percentages in text, tables, or formulas (or all three).
For books with a chronology, such as novels and memoirs/biographies, it can be useful to have a timeline to verify the logical flow of events.
As I edit, I like to create a list of an author’s pet words—“just,” “very,” “really,” “on the other hand,” “the fact of the matter is.” Before I wrap up my editing, I search the entire document to see how many pets I find. I cut or reduce the unnecessary words (just, very) and swap out overused words for other phrases. You might be surprised how this little extra step task can charge up the writing.
For some books, as with the inconsistent data presentation we mentioned up front, it can be useful to note how various elements should be formatted: capitalized, bolded, italicized, indented, and so on. Then you can skim through the document looking for each element and make sure it adheres to the defined treatment.
A style sheet is a living document.
Here is a style sheet from a real project—a financial book—only slightly tidied up for public consumption.
As I work with an author to revise their manuscript, I keep a list of all my questions, decisions, and rationales. Near the end of my editing, I organize my list into categories and run searches in the document to make sure I followed my own rules.
In the sample style sheet, you will notice we used Investopedia for specialized terminology, and we have a list of the names of accounting bodies to make sure we get the terms correct. We also documented rules about capitalization of accounting terms in order to highlight key concepts for the reader; in another book with a different focus, the same terms might not be capitalized.
When I hand off the manuscript to a copyeditor or proofreader, I include the style sheet. The next editor then knows the decisions already made. They can add to the list as needed and ask questions if they disagree with a decision.
While I like to categorize my notes, editor Rita Lewis prefers to have her style sheet alphabetized, so when I send her a style sheet, she strips out the categories and sorts the document. “As I move through the document, having entries in alphabetical order makes it easier to look things up in one step rather than two.” Editor Jenni Hart follows the same practice, adding this helpful twist: “Throughout an editing project, I use the style sheet not only to guide the editing, but also to note any outstanding questions or discrepancies, along with the page numbers where they occur.”
Different editors have different approaches to using a style sheet, probably dependent on the phase and focus of editing. The important thing is to have one.
Do you need an editorial style sheet?
Must you, the author, use an editorial style sheet? No. But your editor should.
Do most writers use a style sheet? Some do, some don’t. It is rare for an author to give me a written style sheet, but many authors do have a mental list of their preferences and practices, so be sure to let your editor know what yours are.
Can a style guide be beneficial? Yes. It enables consistency and cohesiveness, and it can help amp up your writing. It also saves time (and possibly money), helping you avoid looking up the same thing repeatedly or going back and forth with your editor more than warranted. Bonus: If you write a second book, you can use the style sheet from your first book as a starting place to save time and ensure consistency in authorial voice. (Yes, I have done this!)
Give it a try! My data-driven client did. She reported that making an editorial style sheet helped her with decisions that saved me (her editor) time and her (the client) mistakes and energy. Win-win!