Writing Homework #20: Create a Style Sheet

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With my rewrite for #spookyromancenovel entering the home stretch, I’ve been thinking increasingly about the future line-editing stage and what I can do to make it easier on myself.

Looming large in my list of regrets from previous novels is the fact that I never made a style sheet.

From Romance Refined: “A manuscript style sheet is a critical tool for authors, editors, and proofreaders to use for ensuring consistency within a single manuscript or across a series. Traditionally, a copy editor creates a style sheet as they edit, and they pass that style sheet to the proofreader so they can adhere to the same conventions.

I’ve nudged at the edges of this topic before, but never covered it completely, so here goes.

In a traditional author-publisher setup, the style sheet, as described above, isn’t something you’d generate yourself, since you’re not your own editor. However, for independent authors who, whether by choice or necessity, do some or all of their own editing, this is going to save you time and stress throughout the editing process. And, of course, even most traditionally published authors spend a lot of time polishing their manuscripts before sending them in, so it’s not a bad idea to work up a personal one to ensure your submission is as clean and shiny as you can make it.

So what goes on a style sheet? Anything that will help you provide consistency in tone and appearance throughout your work.

That’s vague, but some of it will depend on your writing style and the project itself. I can give you some good places to start, however, based on my own experience:

  1. Any word or phrase where you choose your preferred usage. I covered this in my post on multiple accepted spellings. If you have to decide between two or more options, make a note of which you choose, so you’re not like me, looking it up again later, or worse, doing a Ctrl+F in your first book’s file to hunt down what you decided when you need to refer to it again in book three.
  2. Any word or phrase you’re deliberately avoiding. Not to be conflated or confused with filter words; let me explain. The best example I have from my own reading is Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Universe series. In it, she never uses the word “thing” to refer to an object, situation, or concept–“Thing” is reserved for use in the Viking/Icelandic sense of a governmental meeting. The base culture of her alternate-history fantasy is French, and simply doesn’t have that word as we use it in modern English. If that seems like a pretty big ask for an author, it is; “thing” shows up on overused-word lists all the time. But your “do not use” word list doesn’t have to include anything so fundamental or pervasive–in fact, you might not start out with any prohibited words at all.
  3. Anything that defines character voice. For this, an example from my own works. In the What We Need series, Paul starts his sentences with “Well,” a lot. In the early drafts of What We Need to Survive, that wasn’t specific to him; during edits, I eliminated it from other characters to clean up the dialogue overall while giving him a more pronounced vocal style. I kept this up until book three, when, through long exposure, Nina has unconsciously picked up this tic and uses it occasionally.
  4. How you handle ellipses. Three periods with no spaces? With spaces between? Are there spaces before and after, or not? I’ve read various articles debating the truly “correct” form for ellipses, but I’ve seen several ways of handling them across published works, so there’s still probably an element of choice, at least if you’re an indie author. Note down whatever you decide on.
  5. Any special punctuation or formatting guidelines stylistically unique to your project. I’ve seen books that italicize internal monologue (common) but plenty that don’t, leaving it in plain text like so: “She thought, I don’t want to be here right now.” I’ve seen books that use alternate characters in place of quotation marks when the characters are using telepathy to communicate, like so: *This is stupid,* she thought at him. (Granted, that was ages ago when I was a kid, but I remember it, because it was so strange.) A much more modern issue–how do you format conversations via text? I just read a book that uses actual text bubble images, to make it look authentic, but in plenty of other works I’ve seen it handled exactly like dialogue, only the tags or context around it mentions it’s a text message; I’ve seen texted conversation formatted in bold, both with and without quotation marks; I’ve seen italics as well, though less commonly, since (as above) many authors use that for internal dialogue and don’t want to confuse the reader by making italics perform double duty.

What all of these examples boil down to is essentially this: if you have to make a decision about how you want something to be handled in your manuscript, then it probably needs to go on your style sheet so that a) you remember what you chose down the line, whether you’re coming back to the project after a break, or writing a long-running series; and b) during the editing process you can make certain your style is consistent.

As you continue to write, you might find yourself splitting your style sheet into a master sheet and a project-specific sheet would be helpful. You’re not that likely to want to change how you handle ellipses, but anything character-specific won’t transfer between projects that don’t have the same characters. This leads me to my last piece of advice: label and DATE your style sheets so that you know what they are and when you created them. Your style might evolve over time; you might decide there’s a better way to do something in your next book. That’s fine. But you wouldn’t want to refer to an outdated style sheet for a new project, in that case, and with the amount of note files and draft versions and other associated digital junk that can accumulate around even a single book project, a style sheet is something you wouldn’t want to go missing or use incorrectly, when its entire purpose is to make your writing better.

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