To better understand the value of a style sheet, let’s consider first the earmarks of a well-edited manuscript. Compared to an unedited manuscript (or one that has merely been proofed for typos), the following is usually true of an edited manuscript:
- The voice has been refined
- Plot clarity has been improved
- Story universe is more clearly defined
- Pacing is more consistent
- Syntax is tighter/cleaner
- Word choice is more effective
Some of these qualities are dependent on the author’s experience/writing skill– it generally takes a more practiced ear to pick up on and critique things like sentence structure, weak word choice, or inconsistent pacing. Others, however, are virtually entirely dependent on good record-keeping and a disciplined adherence to the established norms– plot and character details are vivid at first because the author wrote them that way, but they stay sharp and clear in the reader’s mind because the author kept track of and stuck to the initial rules he made for that universe/character. An author’s voice is most effective when it is consistent and clear throughout rather than weakened by distractingly inconsistent usage, punctuation, spelling, or grammar. That’s where a style sheet comes in.
What is a style sheet?
Think of a style sheet as a reference tool written especially for and tailored specifically to your manuscript. Remember the APA or MLA reference books/handouts your teachers in high school or college gave you and expected you to use when writing your papers? If a teacher wanted your paper in APA style, you consulted your APA style manual to determine whether or not to use an oxford comma, how to format a quotation, which spelling of “cancelled” to use, etc. A style sheet (and don’t be confused by the name; it’s rarely a “one-sheet” document, and is often several pages long) is the reference manual you compile based on your experience with and knowledge of your story, your voice, and your writing. It helps you keep track of story details, such as characters’ physical appearance, backstory, and style of speaking, and the writing “rules” you’re following, such as which spellings you’re using of words/names, words you’re choosing to hyphenate or not, what numbers you’re spelling out versus using numerals for, etc. Once you’ve established your “official” stance on the details/rules/practices of that particular manuscript, the style sheet becomes an all-powerful oracle you can consult during editing to quickly provide direction and answers to dozens of questions and uncertainties. We’ll look this week chiefly at the components of a style sheet that speak to story– characters, plot/timeline, setting, etc.– and leave the writing/style elements of a style sheet to talk about next week.
Compiling a style sheet.
A style sheet is a living document, meaning it changes and grows as your manuscript takes shape. At the beginning of its life, a style sheet is mostly descriptive rather than prescriptive, meaning it’s simply reflecting/recording the choices you’ve already made rather than dictating your next steps. It would be exhausting and unrealistic on multiple fronts to compile a complete style sheet for a book before writing it– you would have to anticipate each and every possible scenario that could arise while writing the manuscript (“If I write the word ‘seat-belt,’ I will hyphenate it.”), know each of your characters and your setting in detail in advance (“The coffee shop that the main character will meet her birth-mother at in chapter 24 will be called “The Mud Hut,” and the furniture is orange and brown”), and then painstakingly consult the style sheet as you wrote to make sure you were following your rules. Obviously, most authors prefer to write freely and let their story pick up momentum as they go, even the ones who plan or outline their books in detail before writing them.
The difference between an outline and a style sheet is that an outline merely dictates the direction and events of the plot (“protagonist will meet her birth-mother in a coffee shop”) while a style sheet records the exact details and keystrokes (“hyphenate ‘birth-mother’ every time you write it,” “coffee shop will be decorated in orange and brown”) of a scene, usually after it’s written, for the purpose of achieving consistency throughout the remainder of the manuscript– in the case of my made-up example, the information on the outline tells the author what to write; the information on the style sheet reminds the author of what they already wrote so that they can make not to contradict themselves in additional scenes set in the coffee-shop or additional uses of the word “birth-mother.”
Because most of these tiny decisions are made in the moment, while you’re writing, it’s much easier to go back after the manuscript is complete and tweak certain scenes or details to conform to the rules/details you settled on than it is to think through every punctuation and biographic and setting and spelling decision before you put words on paper. That being the case, you want to start with the bare minimum on your style sheet– names, basic descriptive information, etc.– and add details to each entry as you reveal/establish/discover more about each character, the setting, or the events of the plot.
So what kind of info should end up on your style sheet by the time you finish your manuscript?
- Character names, descriptions, and brief bios (as far as you know them): Think doctor’s-office-questionnaire or job-application-type info here rather than introspective psychological profiles– spelling of full name, eye color, hair color, body type, height, occupation, hometown, education, immediate family’s names and statuses (alive or dead, location, etc.), important relationships– spouses, children, etc. Obviously, you won’t know/have as much info for minor characters as for main characters, and you probably won’t have all your characters established at the beginning of the writing process.
- Setting info: Names and spellings of towns/states/neighborhoods, if applicable, demographic information– size, population, weather, major characteristics.
- Timeline info: The order in which things happen in your story.
By compiling this kind of information during your writing process, you can avoid conflicting descriptions of a character or setting, making sure you’re not contradicting yourself or confusing your reader. At the end of the first draft, you should have a pretty good collection of the characteristics of your major characters and setting to refer to when editing, as well as a clear timeline to refer to when examining your pacing and your clarity of exposition later in the editing process.
Next week, we’ll look at the craft/style-related elements of a style sheet and how to add them to your story/character-related elements to create a really strong style sheet, as well as how to use that style sheet to focus your editorial eye and save you hours of editing time. Thanks for reading!