What’s a Style Sheet?

I knew nothing about style sheets when I started copyediting books for trade publishers and university presses. Before long I thought style sheets were the greatest thing since mocha chip ice cream — well, almost.

So what’s a style sheet? More important, if you’re a writer, not an editor, why should you care?

English is a richly diverse language. British English (BrE) and American English (AmE) often spell the same word differently: spelt/spelled, labour/labor, tyre/tire. In AmE, some words can be spelled in more than one way, like ax and axe, or façade and facade. Others have variations that are pronounced differently but mean the same thing: amid and amidst, toward and towards.

And hyphens! Don’t get me going about hyphens. One of these days I’ll devote a whole blog post to hyphens. Sometimes a hyphen is crucial: consider, for instance, the difference between coop and co-op. Often the hyphen is helpful but not crucial. When I look at reignite, the first thing I see is reign. If an author wants to hyphenate it, re-ignite, that’s fine with me. For most readers, the hyphen in living-room sofa isn’t essential, but if the author has written it that way, I’ll generally leave it alone — and insert a hyphen in dining-room table if the author has left it open.

A style sheet collects all such choices into one handy list: choices not only about how words are spelled but about how they’re styled. Hyphenation is often a matter of style rather than spelling. When do you spell out numbers and when do you use figures? Are abbreviations OK? When the dictionary notes that a word is “often capped” or “usually capped,” which does the writer prefer?

It’s a rare author who submits a style sheet with his or her manuscript. A recent job included Arabic and Urdu terms transliterated into English, and many personal and place names that are transliterated in myriad ways. The author did include a style sheet with his preferred spellings and stylings, and I was profoundly grateful. It saved me a lot of online research and second-guessing.

In fact-checking another recent job, a novel, I quickly discovered discrepancies between the names of some real-life places and the way my author was spelling them. Other names were faithful to the actual place. I’m still not sure whether these discrepancies were intentional or not. If the job had come with a style sheet, I would have known — and I wouldn’t have spent so much time trying (unsuccessfully) to verify the author’s versions.

Why should you, the writer, keep a style sheet?

Maintaining consistency in a novel or long nonfiction work is a challenge. Sure, if you’re working on the computer, you can use the search function to find earlier instances of a word or name — or you could just consult your style sheet. If you’re writing a series involving the same locations and characters, a style sheet will be even more useful.

Whether you self-publish or publish with a trade, academic, indy, or small press, your style sheet means your copyeditor doesn’t have to start from scratch. If she finds inconsistencies in the ms., she’ll be able to go with your preference instead of guessing what you want.

Several books that appear frequently in my "Primary References" section

Several books that appear frequently in my “Primary References” section

I find that keeping a style sheet makes me more conscious of my choices, whether I’m editing or writing. Plenty of choices are “six of one, half dozen the other.” Others are a matter of style: for instance, do you prefer diacritics in words like façade and résumé and naïve? And sometimes, especially with proper nouns, it’s a matter of right and wrong. In the very well written nonfiction book I just finished copyediting, Katherine Hepburn’s name was so spelled. I’ve seen it so often (mis)spelled that way, I didn’t have to look it up (but I did anyway): it’s Katharine, with an a. Before you enter a name on your style sheet, verify the spelling.

If you write fantasy or science fiction, with made-up names that can’t be verified online, a style sheet can be especially useful. Same goes if, in either fiction or nonfiction, you’re dealing with names from other languages, especially languages that don’t use the Roman alphabet. Transliteration systems differ. Accents and diacritics and other spelling conventions can be confusing to someone who doesn’t know the language.

You can organize your style sheet in any way that makes sense to you and whatever you’re working on. Here are the major categories and subcategories in the style sheet I made for a just-completed job, with a brief explanation of each. Most of mine follow a similar format.

Primary References

Here’s where I put whatever dictionaries, style guides, and other reference works I’m using. This keeps my word list (see below) under control: it means I only have to list spellings and stylings that differ from the dictionary’s or style guide’s recommendation.

General

This section is for style choices that apply to the whole book. Number 1 is nearly always “serial comma.” Number 2 usually specifies either “which/that distinction observed” or “which OK for restrictive clauses.” (Anyone want a crash course on the which/that distinction??)

This particular style sheet had subsections for Capitalization, Hyphens & Dashes, Quotes & Italics, and Slashes. Most also have a Numbers subsection, but not this one.

Words

Word lists can be short or long. They should include choices made where alternatives exist, e.g., axe rather than ax, or vice versa. They’ll probably include plenty of words where capitalization, hyphenation, the use of italics, or the styling of numbers is at issue. Their #1 purpose is to help me keep my choices and the author’s straight.

Among the words and phrases in my list were the following (with the reason I included each one):

Braille (can be lowercased)

carpe diem (like other foreign-language expressions listed in the dictionary, it’s usually not italicized)

coauthor (commonly hyphenated)

 decision-making (n.) (decision making and decisionmaking are also possible)

 not-yet-imagined, the (coinage by the author)

 rebbe (variant spelling of rabbi)

transparence (variant of transparency)

Trickster tales (Trickster capped as an archetype)

Western (cultural); western (n.; genre): compass directions are usually lowercased, except when they take on a more-than-geographical meaning. Eastern and Western may signify large cultural groupings. During the Cold War, they had political significance. (North and South are generally capped in reference to the sides in the U.S. Civil War.) And western the genre is sometimes capped and sometimes not. Could drive you crazy, no?

Names

Some copyeditors list the names of virtually every person mentioned in a book. As a proofreader, I don’t find such exhaustive lists useful. So I don’t list familiar names that are easily verified — unless they are frequently misspelled (like Katharine Hepburn) or the author is inconsistent. It can be hard to verify names with particles (von, van, de, etc.), partly because styling varies from family to family and because online references aren’t always as authoritative as they think they are. So it’s worth putting them on the style sheet.

serenity prayer

A good style sheet helps editors and proofreaders recognize what should be changed and what’s fine as it is.

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2 thoughts on “What’s a Style Sheet?

  1. I find the creation of a style sheet to be the most satisfying part of my editing jobs. I love to see my mini-dictionary evolve through the editing process. When I (proudly) show it to my husband, he politely smiles (“Niiiice”) but doesn’t really get it. No one does. Except this blog. Thanks for writing it! (BTW, I copied your serenity prayer and have taped it to my office wall.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I love style sheets as a writer, as an editor, and as a proofreader. Well, as a proofreader I love good style sheets, the ones where I can find what I need to know exactly when I need to know it. I’m forever encouraging writers to make their own style sheets, both for their own use and for their editors down the road, but most of them don’t, or they don’t do it in a way that anyone else can make sense of it. Oh well. Thanks for stopping by!

      Like

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