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How authors can use a style sheet

Style sheets are a mainstay of the traditional editing and publishing process. Yet many writers and authors don't know what they are or how they can be put to use. In this blog, I'll break down what types of information the style sheet records and ways that authors can use this information to support their writing endeavors.

What a style sheet is

An editorial style sheet is a record of all editorial decisions made in the editing and proofreading process. It ensures that an editor (or multiple editors/proofreaders) maintain consistency as the manuscript moves through the stages of editing. Some style sheets, especially for fiction, include a compilation of relevant story information; including, character names, descriptions, and relationships; place names and descriptions; world-building details/rules of the world; and a plot timeline.

For the purposes of this post, I am writing from the perspective of a freelance editor working directly with authors. Therefore, I create and maintain style sheets primarily for myself before handing them over to the author upon completion of editorial services. When I complete contract work with a publisher, they may or may not require me to maintain or update a style sheet. I don't usually need to create one from scratch, as there will usually be a previously created style sheet for me to add to or a more rigid style guide that I may not edit.

What a style sheet typically looks like

Every style sheet is unique to the editor who makes it. Most include similar types of information despite being organized in different ways (see the following three examples; note: these are note mine).

Categories one might find on a style sheet are:

  • Style guide or reference materials

  • Formatting specifications (page breaks, section breaks, paragraph indention, margins, spacing, headings and subheadings, font size and type, etc.)

  • A word list of misspelled or confused words gathered from the manuscript

  • Spelling preferences, noting whether the manuscript uses British or American spelling and grammar conventions

  • A list of abbreviations and acronyms

  • Capitalization rules

  • Punctuation rules

  • Hyphenation rules

  • Other grammar preferences that are more flexible (Oxford comma, use of contractions, format of dates/times, etc.)

  • Any other author-specified style preferences (use of different typography for emphasis, for instance)

How an author can use a style sheet

Once the author has received their style sheet and their edited or proofread manuscript, I recommend they read through the style sheet to see what decisions were made. Then, as they accept and reject changes to their manuscript, they can keep the style decisions in mind and make their own editorial decisions consistently and with confidence.

It may become necessary at a later date (once formatting is complete) for an author to make a final pass of the book file before publication. Keeping the style sheet handy will help them remember what decisions were made months or weeks ago so that no unnecessary changes are made at this crucial stage.

If an author is writing a series, the style guide can be used for a more efficient writing and self-editing/revision process. Your editor will thank you if you can self-correct some of the previous book's errors, saving your editor time (and yourself, money) in the long run.

Finally, the style sheet is not just a reference for the author, but it can also serve as a bridge between a previous editor and another editor or proofreader. A proofreader, for instance, who receives a style sheet from a previous editor won't need to build a style sheet from scratch and can proofread to maintain the manuscript's internal consistency, which was previously decided on by the previous editor and the author.

In conclusion

Using an editorial style sheet can help authors save time and prevent unnecessary confusion when a manuscript trades hands between an author and editor. It's an industry standard, and if your editor or proofreader doesn't normally create one, they should!

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