Ask the Editor Series, Q14
Q: My editor asked if I had a style sheet for my MS. I don’t think it’s any of her business what I wear.
A1: Style is so subjective, don’t you think? If you want to write in a ball gown or in pajamas (or a sheet), you do you.
A2: Style sheets are so very, very not complicated, I can sum them up in three words: your book’s info.
Writers are famous for having way more information stored in their heads than ever makes it to the written page. I mean, let’s face it, if you ask writers about their characters, they can rattle off family history, medical complications, clothing preference and how many piercings or tattoos each character has.
How do they remember all that information? Well, in truth: they don’t.
What is a style sheet?
First, let’s clarify what a style sheet is not. I’m not talking about a style guide like Chicago Manual of Style or New Hart’s Rules, used for style standardization in the US and the UK, respectively. Those are terrific guides and are necessary for ensuring that we follow industry standards.
But a style sheet is a little different. A style sheet puts all the necessary information in one place for you (and your editor) to find easily. Does your MC have green eyes? Make a note of it so you don’t accidentally wax poetic about his piercing blue eyes in later chapters after comparing his eye color to vibrant emeralds earlier in the book.
Is a style sheet the same as a book bible?
Well . . . yes and no. Some authors keep what they call a “book bible” that contains everything that can possibly be known about their story, characters, and created world. Many times, this comes in the form of a large binder with separators for categories, or as a pile of spiral-bound notebooks.
A book bible differs from a style sheet in that it’s likely to contain every detail about that book’s universe: not only the character names and ages, but family history, quirks, personality traits—literally everything, whether or not it goes into the book. It’s all there, just in case, and it helps the author to remember why this particular family relationship didn’t work, or the significance of a particular newspaper article, or any number of things.
So what DOES go on a style sheet?
Style sheets in a nutshell: anything that’s in your book that deals with characters, places, names, and details that need to be consistent.
Some people like to create a style sheet in a Word doc, with different sections or pages for proper nouns, names, correct hyphenation of particular words, style choices and more. These can be helpful with all the information in blocks at a glance.
I prefer to use a spreadsheet I’ve created, because much of my editing work is in science fiction and fantasy. If you’re a SF/F fan, you’re well aware of how many tribes, species, and worlds that can involve, even in the simplest of novels.
I love having a separate tab/sheet for each thing. For example, on my “characters” tab, I list each person by first and last name, species, homeworld, and notable characteristics. That way, I can, with a single click, rearrange the spreadsheet to show all the Vulcans, or everyone who serves on a particular spaceship, or everyone who has a particular military rank. Easy peasy.
How do I even get started?
As you read through your manuscript, list every single person who’s named. If they’re described physically, make a note of it. If there’s a place mentioned, list it in a “places and proper nouns” tab. Keep a separate tab or page for consistency errors and standardizations. Is a particular compound word hyphenated, closed (single word), or two words? Or is it only hyphenated when it’s used as an adjective? Are you writing in American/US English but prefer a British/UK spelling for something in particular?
Anything that might be written two different ways (is her name Jillian or Gillian?) or spelled inconsistently—or things that just need to be REMEMBERED (he lives on Baker Street, not Barker Street or Baker Avenue)—those are the things that go on a style sheet.
There are no rules to it. Whatever works for you is what works for you. If you have a style sheet ready, your editor will thank you when the time comes to copyedit your book. If you don’t have one, most editors (like me) will create one and share it with you. Believe me, when you’ve written a series, it’s hard to remember which character names you’ve used and who died in the previous three books.
If you’d like to see a sample of the style sheet I use, email me at lynda @ easyreaderediting dot com and I’ll gladly share mine for you to adapt and enjoy.
Until then, I’ll leave you with an entertaining post about style sheets—or style sheep, as the case may be, from way back in Ye Olden Days when author S.K. Anthony and I used to have a regular feature, Coffee Chat, on my old blog and explored our not-so-hidden silly side.
If you have any questions, don’t forget to drop a comment and
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