What is a style sheet and why do you need one?
Your guide to editorial style sheets
Have you ever wondered what a style sheet, style guide or ‘house style’ is?
If you want to submit your manuscript to a publisher or journal, it’s likely you’ll need to follow their style guidelines. And if you’re writing a thesis, your university will have its own style requirements. But what does this mean?
In a nutshell, a style sheet records decisions about the writing mechanics, content and formatting of a publication to ensure consistency.
In this post, I’ll explain why consistency matters, what elements of your writing need to be consistent and exactly what goes on a style sheet. At the end of the post, I’ll provide a template for you to download so you can create your own style sheet.
First, though, I’ll define what I mean by ‘style’ in a writing and editing context.
What is ‘style’ in writing and editing?
When you hear the word ‘style’ you might think of models sashaying down the catwalk in the latest couture fashion or celebrities living a lifestyle of luxury. That’s not what we’re talking about here, although writing style does relate to the manner or mode of presentation.
Just like your fashion style is the way you dress and present yourself, your writing style is the characteristic way in which you write – your personal style and the way your writing reads. It relates to your word choices, syntax (sentence structure) and paragraph structure. It’s not about what you write, but how you write it.
There’s a lot more to say about writing style, but in relation to style sheets, the mechanics of your writing are the focus: the rules of spelling, punctuation, grammar and so on that you follow (or not).
A style sheet records all the choices you make about these writing mechanics – and the references you’ll consult to help you decide – so you can be consistent. For example:
- Do you want to use US spelling (e.g. traveling, color and organize) or Australian spelling (e.g. travelling, colour and organise)? And when you’re not sure about the spelling of a word, which dictionary will you consult?
- Do you always want to use a serial comma in a list of 3 or more items, or only when needed for clarity?
- Would you prefer to use single or double quotation marks for direct speech?
- What about referencing style in an academic document – will you follow APA, Chicago, Harvard or another style in your paper or thesis?
- When you’re not sure about a point of grammar, what style manual or other reference will you consult for guidance?
A style sheet isn’t just about writing mechanics, though; it’s also about consistency in content and formatting. But before we talk more about that, let’s look at why consistency is important.
Why does consistency matter?
Have you ever read something and been confused about whether 2 things referred to differently were actually different or were really the same thing?
Were you ever jarred out of a story because you noticed that the protagonist was described as having blue eyes in Chapter 1 and green eyes in Chapter 10 and you had to go back and check if you were right? Or the name of a minor character was spelled in 3 different ways? (OK, so maybe that’s just me.)
Perhaps you’ve been able to identify spam emails because of the Random and Inconsistent Use of capital letters For No apparent Reason. Or maybe you’ve navigated away from a website because you were bamboozled by the overuse of UA*.
Maybe you’re a ‘big picture’ person and this type of inconsistency has never bothered you. After all, you can usually still work out the key message, right? Actually, it’s surprising how these seemingly unimportant details can detract from a professional image.
The late, great IPEd Distinguished Editor Janet Mackenzie wrote in her book, The Editor’s Companion, that one of the ‘guiding principles’ in editing is to ‘eliminate meaningless variation’ in a piece of writing (p. 184). You want to do everything in your power to avoid distracting the reader and to keep them pinpointed on your message.
* UA = unexplained acronyms
What about variety?
At this point, you might be asking yourself: What about the saying, ‘variety is the spice of life’? Isn’t variety in writing important too? The answer is that variety is not the same as inconsistency.
So, yes, you do want variety in your word choices, sentence lengths and expressions. You don’t want variety that serves no purpose other than to annoy or confuse your readers.
Why take the risk of turning off your readers? Of stopping them from finishing your book, signing up to your newsletter or buying your product or service? You want your readers to focus on your story, argument or sales pitch, not on irrelevant and meaningless details.
So what can you do about it?
You can make decisions and stick to them; decisions about mechanics, content and formatting in your writing.
I talked about mechanics earlier; it’s the rules or conventions of grammar, spelling, punctuation and so on that you’re going to follow (or choose to defy).
Content consistency relates to what you are writing about – things like the correct and consistent spelling of the people and places (whether real or imaginary) named in your writing.
Finally, formatting consistency refers to the appearance of your document or online content.
Once you’ve made those decisions, or as you’re making them, you need to record them for easy reference. Enter the style sheet.
What goes on a style sheet?
A style sheet can be as simple as a one-page alphabetical list itemising the words, expressions and abbreviations used in a publication. For a large organisation, though, it might be many pages long and cover more than just a list of words.
Let’s take a closer look at the specific elements of mechanics, content and formatting to put on your style sheet.
This covers choices about things like:
- spelling and hyphenation
- numbering and dates
- use of italics
- grammar and syntax.
This covers such things as:
- shortened forms (abbreviations, acronyms and initialisms) and what they stand for
- names of people, places, organisations and other proper nouns
- foreign, scientific and technical terminology
- in fiction, the appearance, traits and backstories of your characters
- setting descriptions
- timelines and events.
This covers elements relating to the appearance and presentation of your document, such as:
- list styles for bulleted and numbered lists
- paragraph indents and alignment
- heading levels and styles
- typography and font styles and sizes for the body-text elements of the document
- colours (e.g. your branding colours for your logo and website).
Who uses style sheets?
Style sheets and style guides are used more widely than you might realise. Here are some of the organisations and situations where you’ll find them:
- Many large organisations, such as government agencies and universities, adopt a ‘house style’. In Australia, this is often based on the guidelines in the Australian Government Style Manual.
- Traditional publishing houses usually have their own style that is applied to manuscripts being edited for publication.
- In academic writing, many academic presses, scholarly journals and conferences have their own style requirements that authors must follow when preparing manuscripts for submission. This is where an academic editor can prove invaluable.
- Graphic designers often create style sheets to record organisational branding, including colours, logos and font styles and sizes.
- IT professionals create ‘cascading style sheets’ (CSS) to ensure consistent formatting and presentation of webpages.
- Editors will usually create a custom style sheet for a manuscript of any size, but it is especially important when editing or project managing:
- a manuscript with more than one author
- a collection of chapters or stories by different authors for a book or anthology
- a series of documents or publications over an extended period, such as a journal or newsletter
- a range of publications or online content for a business or other organisation.
In all these instances, having a style sheet or house style is essential for promoting a consistent professional image.
Create your own style sheet
I hope you now have a better understanding of what style sheets are, why they’re an essential part of the writing and editing process and how to create one.
Remember, it’s not about being ‘right’ or ‘wrong’; it’s simply a question of consistency in mechanics, content and formatting.
If you don’t already have a style sheet before sending your work to an editor, don’t stress: your editor will create one for you. But creating your own before engaging an editor will help save your editor’s time, which in turn will reduce the cost of editing.
To help you prepare your own style sheet for your writing project, here is a simple style sheet template for nonfiction.
(Coming soon: templates for fiction and thesis editing)
Why not download the template now and get stylish!
References and further reading
American Psychological Association. (2020). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (7th ed.). https://doi.org/10.1037/0000165-000
Australian Government. (2020). Style Manual. https://www.stylemanual.gov.au/
Mackenzie, J. (2011). The editor’s companion (2nd ed.). Cambridge University Press.
The University of Chicago. (2017). Chicago manual of style online (17th ed). https://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/home.html