Style sheets are an author's friend.
If you know what one is, you’re probably nodding in agreement. For the rest of you, I’ll explain—and then you can nod, okay? Okay.
Style Sheet 101- Consistent Spellings
The simplest form of a style sheet is a list of words appearing in a given project. They’re written as they should appear in the text. That means they’re spelled as you want them spelled, styled (capitalized or not, hyphenated or not, and so on) the way you want them styled. In fiction, style sheets often include proper names because face it, who’s going to remember whether it’s "Erisien’nela" or "Erissien-nela" or "ErisSie’nla" without a style sheet? I’ve had projects in which a name like “Jonathan” is spelled in what surely is every possible variation, and no indication of which one the author actually wanted. That’s what the style sheet is for.
Avoid Editor Guesswork
Ideally, an author will provide one for their editor. If that doesn’t happen, the editor might create one or ask the author to do it. (In the case of too many Jonathan/Johnathan/Jonathons, perhaps simply counting the number of times each spelling appears and going with the most common will work. I prefer to contact the author and ask, though. Just because “Johnathan” shows up 124 times and “Jonathon/Jonathan” 100 times each doesn’t mean the author intended “Johnathan” to be the preferred spelling. Don’t ask me how I know this.)
Also, this simple style sheet should reflect your desired capitalization. Don’t leave anything to chance.
Include Preferred Wording on Your Style Sheet
Another kind of style sheet, which I love to receive, includes preferred wording along with the spelling list. Here are some examples:
"Always use 'perhaps', never 'maybe'."
"Always use the singular 'they' instead of gendered pronouns unless it’s obvious a gendered pronoun is required".
"Avoid British spellings."
"Use British spellings for words like 'colour' and 'favour', but not for -ize words."
"Use the -s-less American spellings of 'forward', 'toward', 'backward'.”
I’ll call out my client Garrett Robinson (author of the UNDERREALM fantasy series) for his excellent style sheet, which provided me not only what he wanted, but what he explicitly did not want as well. It’s a Google Doc file he shared with me, so I can’t lose it and we can keep amending it as needed as the series continues.
Here are some excerpts from his style sheet:
Ellipses: we use the single-character ellipsis in our books, simply because it works better when formatting the book for ebook and print. Spaced periods can and will be broken up from one line to the next, whereas the single-character ellipsis won’t.
* * *
traveled not travelled
travelers not travellers
grey not gray
mayhap not perhaps or maybe
plural of magic is “magicks” not “magics”
Usage: “There are four types of magic, but the various magicks are not all the same.”
wineskin/waterskin (styled closed)
passerby/passersby (styled closed)
redcloaks (styled closed)
bannisters because “banisters” is FUGLY
roofs not rooves. If I’d known rooves was an option from the beginning, I would have used it, but it’s been roofs in eight books straight now, so we’re stuck with it.
Try to (NOT try and)
All right (two words)
Something else to think about is mechanics. Do you want to avoid the use of parentheses? Say so. Some authors like them (too much, perhaps), and others purposely eschew them. Tell your editor which kind of author you are; don’t make them guess.
Same with italics. Are there certain words you always want italicized in your text? Tell the editor, or they’ll likely set about removing all those slanty letters and replacing them with normal ones. (Note: Foreign words that appear in standard English dictionaries are not italicized. So, for example, “vaquero” is set in roman type, but “luchadore” is italicized.)
Numbers vs. Numerals
Let’s not forget about numbers and numerals. These can be the bane of a project. My personal editing style is to follow the recommendations of the Chicago Manual of Style for writing out numbers up to one hundred, then using numerals—but I differ from them when it comes to ages. I prefer to see ages presented in numerals because in my mind that’s easier to apprehend than words. “She was 47 years old if she was a day” is easier for me to grasp than “She was forty-seven years old if she was a day.” Of course, if a client disagrees with me, we do it their way. It’s their work, not mine. And honestly: don’t overthink it. “We don’t talk in numbers! Why would I use numerals? Shouldn’t they all be written out?” Seriously? You want “She had a key to room five-oh-one” instead of “She had a key to room 501”? Which one’s easier to understand quickly? Yep, thought so.
Nonfiction Style Sheets
Because I don’t edit a lot of nonfiction, I seldom have to deal with running headers/footers, heading hierarchies, and so on. If those appear in a nonfiction text, their specifications should be included in a style sheet. That means typeface, type size, leading (the space between the bottom of a line of text and the bottom of the next line, which will probably be different for a heading and a paragraph), and so on. Sure, MS Word lets you style a document, but it’s also nice to have a separate style sheet listing everything. Redundant systems can be useful.
A Useful Tool for You AND Your Editor
This is just touching the surface of style sheets, but I think it’s enough to give you a good idea of what one should have, at minimum, and it's a useful tool for you and your editor. The more style sheets you create, the better you’ll get at knowing what you need to include and what can be left out—especially if you have one editor you work with consistently. After a while, for example, it won’t be necessary to say “avoid British spellings” because that’s become a known quantity.
But you’ll always want to include the preferred spelling of “Johnathon/Jonathan/Jonathon.”
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