Professionally published books are edited with a document little known to the public: the style sheet.
A style sheet is a list of terms, rules, and preferences used for editing. This sheet helps with correctness and consistency, as grammatically correct yet inconsistent writing can distract readers.
All traditional publishers create style sheets with their authors at the beginning of the editorial process and pass it down to copyeditors and proofreaders.
But many self-publishing writers neglect the style sheet. Either they self-edit without any outside help or hire an editor who doesn’t use this industry practice.
If you’re entering self-publishing as a career, I recommend that you keep a style sheet for every book. Whether you create one during the revision process or collaborate with a hired editor, the style sheet will be an invaluable tool that will only strengthen your books, especially if you’re a series author.
What does a style sheet look like?
Publishers all have different conventions for how they construct a style sheet. What’s important is that you include notes that will help you edit the best.
With that in mind, there are common elements for a style sheet.
Basic information and reference materials
At the top of the sheet, put down your book’s title and author’s name. From there, note what style manual and dictionary you’re using.
Style manuals and dictionaries vary wildly based on country and category. However, with U.S. trade publishing, The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) is the industry standard, with Merriam-Webster being the recommended dictionary for CMOS.
If you’re a self-publisher, you can choose whichever resources you prefer, but consider the industry standard first.
If you want professional-level editing, you need to choose specific references so that all project editors follow the same rules. Otherwise, you may have editors reversing each other’s changes due to using different dictionaries!
The alpha list
The most common section is the alpha list, also called a list of terms and names. This list orders the important words and phrases in your book alphabetically and is often subdivided by starting letter.
The most common listed terms are unique words, phrases, and proper names. If a word isn’t in your designated dictionary, include it on the style sheet. Proper names should also be included, especially if they’re names of real-life people. One of the most embarrassing editing blunders you can make is misspelling a real person’s name!
Beyond that, it’s also helpful to list common, distinctive terms in your work or the words you anticipate tripping over. Many words have variant spellings, and choosing one is ideal, so you aren’t flipping between, say, disk and disc.
Frequently, term entries will include additional information like a term’s part of speech or definition for unique words. For instance, you may put the label “(n)” for “noun” after a word.
You can even include nonalphabetical sections in your alpha list. For example, many novelists keep separate sections for character names, places, timelines, and word-building concepts.
Style rules and preferences
To the anguish of many an editor, grammar and style rules can vary greatly between style guides.
For the most part, an editor will follow the rules of one specific style guide in tandem with a publisher’s house style. However, it’s useful to note the most common rules and any digressions from the reference materials.
Practically all style sheets mention whether a book uses the serial comma. Also called the Oxford comma, it’s the comma before the coordinating conjunction in a list of three or more items, such as “x, y, and z.”
The serial comma’s a sore point among editors, with CMOS abiding by it but AP Style (for U.S. newspapers) mostly leaving it out. Even with the style manual listed, style sheets note if the serial comma is in place or not. That’s for cases when the author is inconsistent or typically works under a different style, such as a journalist writing a memoir.
As with the alpha list, sections vary, but the most common ones are:
- punctuation & hyphenation
- abbreviations and acronyms
- numbers and dates
- treatment of foreign words and phrases
- craft elements (point-of-view, verb tense)
- captions (for books with graphical elements)
- references, citations, bibliography
- copyright and licensing permissions
If you have any style rules you’d die on a hill for, staying involved with the style sheet will help you retain these rules, even when your editors have different preferences. Ideally, these should be
marked as “author’s preference” when it deviates from your style manual. Remember that if you’re deviating from a standard rule, ask yourself why that rule is in place. Break the rules purposely—not carelessly.
Beyond the first book
Again, a style sheet varies by the book. Include whatever will help you and your editors.
If you’re writing a series, definitely keep the style sheet and pass it on to editors of subsequent entries. The longer the series, the more opportunities for introducing mistakes, and keeping a folder of style sheets will mitigate those mistakes and even provide a template for the sequel’s style sheet.
(And if it’s helpful, you can create an entire series bible—but that’s a matter for a different post.)
If you want to go seriously into style sheets, look up examples of style sheets online or ask your author and editor friends for copies of their sheets. With practice, your editing will improve, and so will your book!
Over to you: Do YOU use style sheets? If so, what sections and rules do YOU tend to include?
ABOUT ELIZABETH JAVOR: With over 20 years of experience in sales and management, Elizabeth Javor works as the Director of Sales and Marketing for Outskirts Press. The Sales and Marketing departments are composed of knowledgeable publishing consultants, customer service reps and book marketing specialists; together, they all focus on educating authors on the self-publishing process to help them publish the book of their dreams. Whether you are a professional looking to take your career to the next level with platform-driven non-fiction or a novelist seeking fame, fortune, and/or personal fulfillment, Elizabeth Javor can put you on the right path.