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Style Sheets

What are they and why should your editor be using one?

Our brain looks for patterns. It’s an evolutionary thing. We tend to notice when a pattern breaks, though it is often subconscious. A reader’s enjoyment can be reduced by that nagging feeling that something is not right in a book. They don't realise that what they are noticing are little inconsistencies.

One of an editor’s or proofreader’s main tasks is ensuring that your writing remains consistent, eliminating your reader’s feeling that something is a little off with your text.

Checkboxes marked off with a red pen

What is a style sheet?

A style sheet is a tool editors use to ensure consistency throughout your 120,000-word epic.

It is a place to record all the style choices made about your book’s text.

Your editor or proofreader will build it and use it throughout the process of preparing your book for publication. It is a constant reminder for them to check that your writing is in a consistent form of English (US or British English, for instance) and that your lead character’s name is spelled correctly every time. It will even help them ensure that your character's hair remains the same colour throughout the book (barring an essential hair-dyeing scene).

What is included in a style sheet?

Your editor or proofreader will craft a style sheet for each story they work on. Every piece of writing has different needs, so the exact contents of a style sheet will vary, though there are a few essentials:

  • Spelling. Is the work in US or British English?

  • What is the preferred dictionary?

  • Is there a preferred style manual (New Hart’s Rules or The Chicago Manual of Style, for instance)?

  • How are numbers formatted?

  • How are dates formatted?

  • What are the rules for punctuation? (Single or double quote marks, for instance).

  • How is hyphenation used?

  • How are abbreviations formatted?

  • Any other specialist formatting that needs to remain consistent (book titles, song titles and so on).

If the book is already typeset, details of the physical formatting will also be noted so that the proofreader can ensure that it stays consistent too:

  • What font, size and effects (bold, italic etc) are used for body text and different levels of heading?

  • What paragraph format is used?

  • If tables are included, what format do they use?

And so on.

Most style sheets will include a word list. This is a collection of words that will need to have their spelling carefully checked each time. It’s the place for unusual words, your character’s names and even words that the proofreader or editor knows they struggle to spell (we all have our blind spots).

When dealing with works of fiction, there are a few other categories that could end up on the style sheet:

  • Characters. There will be an entry for every character, making note of each detail the text lays out. Their full name, description, personality points… any detail that could come up again and needs to be the same each time.

  • Places. Again, anything that needs to remain consistent.

  • Pieces of technology, magic or other weirdness in any writing with extensive world-building.

  • A timeline. This is particularly important if multiple story threads are running concurrently. Do all the timelines match up?

Why you should ask for the style sheet

I always provide the style sheet I have created alongside the edited text, and most competent editors and proofreaders will. I mention it as part of the service on my website.

It’s a good idea to check that you will receive the style sheet before you engage a proofreader or editor. If the professional is not providing a style sheet, you should find out why. It is part of the work you paid them to do, and it shows that they carried it out at a basic level of competence.

If you plan on employing several editorial professionals, you need the style sheet to pass down the work line. If the proofreader can use the style sheet worked up by the copy editor, part of the work to ensure consistency has already been done.

Finally, the style sheet can be helpful for the writer. If you decide that the work needs another self-editing pass or you write another book using the same characters or setting, then you have a bank of information that can help you in your next writing adventure.

An example

I’ve included a sample style sheet here:

Beatwell Editorial Sample Style Sheet
Download PDF • 95KB

This is for a fictitious novel, but it gives you an idea of what you might see on a style sheet. (I stole some details from a rough outline and two scenes I’ve had at the back of a drawer for years. It had no title, so please forgive the feeble one I slapped on there.)


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