About Style Sheets
Updated: Jul 19, 2021
**Update July 2021: As an experiment, I've changed the names of my services! You can still get copyediting; it's just called Detail Debug now.
Creating a style sheet is one of my favorite parts of the copyediting process. (Aside from spotting and fixing tricky errors, that is.) I love gathering all the relevant details of a story into one handy document that I can reference whenever I need to verify a certain detail. As someone who loves lists and charts and journaling, I’m living my best editor life when I’m putting a style sheet together.
I realize, though, that not every writer has experience with style sheets, and many of you may have never seen one. I know I certainly hadn’t before I entered the editing industry! That’s what this post is for—to show you what a style sheet is and help demystify the editing process just a little bit more.
What is a style sheet?
A style sheet is a copyeditor and proofreader’s best friend when editing. It’s a document that keeps track of all the important details in a book or series of books, from punctuation conventions to character names and descriptions. It’s what we use to make sure that all the choices we make when editing—is it spelled travelling or traveling?—stay consistent throughout the entire book or series.
The document can be as simple as a one-page word list for shorter, less intricate works, or as complex as an entire, multi-page document broken down into various sections and needing a table of contents for navigation. Usually a copyeditor starts compiling a style sheet as they edit your manuscript, although this process is sometimes started earlier within publishing houses.
What’s in a style sheet?
A style sheet normally contains most of (though not always all of) the following:
basic info about the manuscript (title, author’s name, etc.)
a list of preferred dictionaries and style guides
silent changes (a list of changes that were made with Track Changes turned off)
punctuation choices that are nonstandard/stylistic (such as whether to use the Oxford comma)
grammar points that are nonstandard/stylistic (such as if singular they is to be used)
number treatment (when to spell out or use numerals)
formatting conventions (when to use italics, small caps, etc.)
notes (and sometimes even charts) on characters, places, timeline, etc.
notes about author preferences or habits that may affect editing choices (i.e. if the author hates semicolons or uses run-on sentences to create a breathless effect in the reader)
in a series, the latest book’s style sheet may contain brief summaries of the previous books
Below is a sample of a very simple style sheet. (If you’ve been keeping up with the blog, you might recognize this from another post—it’s the same basic style sheet I made for my friend Stephanie’s writing sample.) One day I may post my more complex style sheet template on the blog, but for now, this sample serves our purposes.
Click the image to download a PDF of the sample!
Who uses a style sheet?
Your copyeditor and proofreader are the two people who will be most involved with your style sheet. The copyeditor will not only compile it, but will reference it over and over throughout the editing process to ensure that any changes they make are consistent throughout the manuscript. The proofreader will then use the style sheet to make sure they don’t undo any of the copyeditor’s work, and they’ll update it with any additional changes or choices they make.
Authors use their style sheets, too, especially when writing a series of interconnected stories. It’s extremely helpful to have all of the important information about your story contained in one accessible document. You can also reference your style sheet when you have questions about the changes your editor made. Usually, the style sheet will tell you the reason for just about any edit.
Why do editors need a style sheet? Can’t you just...edit?
If a given manuscript is 100% consistent with a style guide (like the Chicago Manual of Style) and a dictionary, doesn’t have any fictional locations, has very few characters to keep track of, and has a fairly simple plot and timeline, then yes, your copyeditor could just edit. But when was the last time you read a book like that?
The truth is, there are a lot of moving pieces to pretty much any novel, and nobody can be expected to keep track of everything through memory alone. The author might be able to do so, but the editor has spent a significantly less amount of time with the story than the author. Having notes about the manuscript is extremely important to making a thorough and consistent edit.
And consistency is not just important to editors—readers notice it, too. If the main character’s parents run a flower shop in the first chapter, but it’s suddenly a jewelry shop in chapter twenty, there is somebody out there who will see this and mention it. The style sheet helps editors be the ones to mention an inconsistency in time for it to be fixed, rather than a reader catching it after publication. (And maybe leaving a less than kind review about it.)
Besides that, the style sheet helps with more than just maintaining consistency—it also helps explain the editor’s choices to the author. This means the editor can spend less time fielding editing questions, and the author can have the peace of mind that each edit has a reason.
What should I do with my style sheet?
The very first thing you should do after receiving your style sheet is check it for errors! Even professional editors can make mistakes. This is especially important for fantasy and science fiction manuscripts, where there are often made-up words and unique spellings for place and character names that can easily be mistyped.
Then, as you go through the changes your editor made, you can reference your style sheet to see why exactly the editor made these changes. This will help immensely when going through your editor’s work. (Do you know what to do with your edited manuscript when you get it back? I have a post about that!)
When you move on to the proofreading stage, send your style sheet to your proofreader. A style sheet can save your proofreader a lot of time and extra effort, plus it helps them keep your book as consistently edited as possible.
Finally, if you’re writing a sequel, use your style sheet during the self-editing stage to make sure you’ve stayed consistent with the previous book. It will save you a lot of rereading and document searching time that could be better spent on writing!
For more information about style sheets, how to make them, and how to use them, I recommend the following posts:
Louise Harnby: Why I create a proofreading and copyediting style sheet for authors
Rachelle Gardner: How to Create a Style Sheet for Your Manuscript
The Blue Garrett: What Is A Style Sheet?
Do you have any other questions about style sheets? Drop them in the comments below, and I’ll answer as best I can!