Chip MacGregor

August 12, 2015

Editing for Authors: Part 4b, The Great and Powerful Style Sheet


brick green no smile b:wWelcome back to my series on editing for authors. Last week, I started to talk about the role of a style sheet in the editing process, specifically the story and character-related elements. This week, we’re looking at the craft and style-related elements of a style sheet, as well as how to use a style sheet to focus your editing.

As I said last week, style sheets are largely descriptive rather than prescriptive– in other words, your style sheet is based on the writing voice/habits that are already in evidence in your manuscript. When you’ve finished a draft of a manuscript and are ready to start editing, you want to look at your manuscript and determine which conventions you’ve used most often and which ones you want to define your voice, and build your style sheet accordingly, adding entries addressing usage, punctuation, spelling, style, and formatting questions that will arise as you edit your manuscript.

For example, if you hyphenated a word the first three or four times you used it (“birth-mother”), you would probably make the hyphenated version an entry on your style sheet, the idea being that you will use that entry as a reference by which to determine that you will alter any subsequent uses of that word where you didn’t hyphenate it. If, however, you hyphenated it the first time but then used it seven more times in the first three chapters without hyphenating it, you’d probably want to let the majority dictate your style-sheet entry, and use the non-hyphenated version as the rule to be followed on your style sheet, since, again, the goal of a style sheet is to define the elements of your style that are already in evidence in your writing and your voice so that you can ensure that they are reflected in your whole manuscript, since precious few of us write with perfect consistency throughout a 75,000-word manuscript. Use this process throughout the first several chapters to determine the “measuring stick,” based on your personal writing norms, that you’ll use for editing the remainder of the manuscript: if you use a serial comma in two out of your first three lists, make a note on your style sheet to always use the serial comma in lists, then change and all subsequent lists to reflect the style sheet; if you usually use italics-only for your first several instances of internal dialogue, add that to your style sheet and then edit all subsequent instances in which you used quotation marks and italics; etc. You get the idea. Types of entries that should be added to your style sheet as you begin to edit your manuscript include:

  • Hyphenated or compound words (e.g., “ebook” vs. e-book,” “web site” vs. “website”)
  • Rules for using numerals vs. spelling out numbers
  • Punctuation rules– serial comma, quotation marks around internal dialogue, etc.
  • Abbreviations (what words you abbreviate, what words you spell out, how abbreviations are punctuated, e.g., “US” vs. “U.S.,” etc.)
  • Intentionally stylistic but technically “wrong” or questionable usages and the exact circumstances or character where they are used (“nothin'” or “sumthin” used to evoke a dialect or a lack of education on the part of a character)
  • Dialogue formatting guidelines (“new indented line with every change of speaker”)

And all of this assumes that your personal writing norms mostly exist within the rules set by recognized authorities such as a dictionary or a common style manual or writing handbook– that you have consulted some reputable resource such as a dictionary or style manual and can defend your stylistic choices as being “correct” at least according to one authority. If I were actually using “birth mother” in manuscript, I theoretically would have done enough research to find that it’s virtually never hyphenated and my style sheet entry would reflect that. The exception to this is, of course, any grammatical or usage decisions that preserve your voice as a writer, the voice of a character, or the tone of a story– books like The Help or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Just So Stories, in which the unusual syntax or incorrect spelling or grammar connote a dialect or level of education or tone on the part of the narrating character or the author. In these cases, the special conventions of the specific choices would then end up as entries on the style sheet to ensure consistency in the formatting and voice, such as “Contractions: never used by the narrator,” or “Civilize: spelled “sivilize” when used by Huck.”

This process of adding entries to your style sheet can be painstaking, but it’s absolutely worth it– a slow, careful read of your first several chapters during which you take the time to notice inconsistencies in spelling, punctuation, usage, or grammar and make a conscious decision about which version you’re going to use as the “correct” one going forward saves you hundreds of additional decisions/questions later in the manuscript. The more complete your style sheet, the less you have to wrestle with questions of usage and grammar and punctuation– having a style sheet entry for a word or a punctuation scenario means that every time you encounter that word or scenario, you can automatically correct it for internal consistency based on the style sheet rather than having to debate each instance throughout the length of the manuscript. The act of compiling a style sheet both trains your editorial eye to notice various types of inconsistencies throughout the manuscript and preemptively answers dozens of editing/style questions for you before you’ve encountered a tenth of them. When your book is contracted for publication and assigned to a professional editor for further editing, he or she will compile a style sheet of their own to ensure the manuscript’s adherence to the publishing house’s specific style conventions (such as always putting internal dialogue in quotation marks, or always spelling out numbers greater than ten), and there’s a chance that some of these will differ from the decisions you made, but the point of authorial editing using a style sheet is not to turn out a manuscript that is ready for publication with one specific publishing house, but to turn out a clean manuscript demonstrating consistency and strong voice that will make the best possible impression on whoever reads it. When I’m reading a manuscript, I’m not passing judgment on whether or not the author’s style conventions agree with mine at every turn, but on whether or not the whole of the document is in agreement with itself.

A style sheet is the tool a professional editor uses to ensure that your book is consistent throughout as well as conforming to the guidelines/style dictates of their particular publishing house. By compiling and using one yourself, you give yourself a valuable reference manual that can both help you identify writing and story inconsistencies within your manuscript as well as shave hours off the editing process.

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  • Aubrey Shepard says:

    Just want to say you are a life-saver! I’ve been stumbling my way toward a style sheet in a very haphazard and unintentional way. Your advice has saved me many years of floundering and given me a clear way to help organize my writing. Couldn’t be more pleased with this set of posts! Thank you!

  • Janet Ferguson says:

    Erin, This is such great information. Do you have a good example of a stylesheet already formatted that I could download or that you could email?

  • Great post, Erin. I love your point about creating an author style sheet that “demonstrates consistency and strong voice” and that ensures that the “whole of the document is in agreement with itself” Smart, smart, smart 🙂

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