What It Is
A style sheet tracks punctuation and style choices, and with fiction, it also tracks characters and events so everyone working on the manuscript follows the same guidelines, ensuring consistency.
With a style guide, an editor can note that a character is short so later if the character pulls something down from a high shelf without using a chair, they know to flag that. If it weren’t on the style sheet, the editor may have forgotten that detail.
Or an editor can note that the author is not using the serial comma so later if a serial comma is used, the editor knows to delete it. Then when the proofreader gets the manuscript, they know not to put in those serial commas.
What to Include on a Style Sheet
Usually an editor will be working with a specific style guide (Chicago Manual of Style, New Hart’s, Words Into Type, etc.), so often they will only note choices that deviate from the “rules” listed in the style guide or choices that are not addressed in that style guide.
However, I also use the style guide as a way to communicate why I made specific punctuation changes. So if an author always puts a comma before every dependent clause that comes after an independent clause and I delete the ones before restrictive dependent clauses, I will have this on the style sheet:
If the editor is using multiple style guides, then they will note the “rules” they applied from CMoS and the ones from WIT.
Topics you can include:
• Formatting (the format of headings, the typography—what is italicized or in small caps etc.—how chapters are listed)
• Numbers (when to use numerals or spell them out, how to format times and dates, etc.)
• Punctuation (commas, dashes, ellipses, colons, semicolons)
• Abbreviations (what they stand for, whether to use periods with them, etc.)
• Quotations (how to format and punctuate them)
• Word list (spellings of all names and places, spelling of words with more than one acceptable spelling, hyphenation preferences, etc.)
Topics to add for fiction manuscripts:
• Main characters/key features (write down characters’ jobs, physical features, and personality traits)
• Settings and places (note the details for each major setting)
• Timeline (note the major events and when they happen: how many days after the last event, what day of the week, etc.)
It Helps If the Author Creates Their Own
Generally a copy editor creates the style sheet; however, it would actually help if the author created one before contacting an editor.
Helps the editor:
If given a style sheet created by the author, the editor will know the author’s style and punctuation preferences beforehand, and they can discuss any they feel might hinder readability.
Before working with an author, I will ask them their preferences on the guidelines authors chose to deviate from the most, but this doesn’t cover everything.
Helps the author:
If the author notes they want to use spaced em-dashes, then they won’t have to scroll to find what decision they made earlier. Noting that their character’s eyes are blue will ensure they don’t forget this choice and later make them green, because they can just check the style sheet.
Soon, I will post a blog on how an author can create their own style sheet, including a free template.