Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Your Writing has Style - So Use a Style Sheet!

If you are a computer programmer, you have probably used style sheets in your day-to-day work. If you are an editor, no doubt you use style sheets on a daily basis (if you don’t prepare these for your clients, you should). However, as a writer, you may not have even heard of a style sheet until an editor or publisher has made you use one. It’s a good thing to know before you start your book – it will save you many headaches later.

A style sheet is your list of style standards and practices for your book, article or even your entire vision of your own image. It is composed of your grammar and punctuation rules, your protocol for capitalization, numbers, italics, proper names and nicknames, character sketches and profiles, details of the settings you use, timelines. Most book publishers use Chicago Manual of Style, so look things up if you are accustomed to writing with another stylebook (MLA for medical articles, AP for newspapers, ALA for college for example).

In addition to your own style sheets, you may be asked to adhere to a publisher’s own rules and recommendations, so make sure you inquire early on. The Chicago Manual of Style may have special rules for specific things that go against what you or your publisher may want  – most of the time, there are good reasons, but sometimes there are just “taste” things that the author wants to convey, or cultural things that add to the flavor of the book. DO NOT allow yourself to misspell things or to use incorrect grammar for cultural reasons except in those instances where it adds flavor to dialog or verse.

The purpose of a style sheet is to keep the writer on track throughout the writing process, and to inform the editor about spelling, punctuation, numerical practices and other items so a manuscript can be consistent throughout. This is particularly important for a writer who takes breaks between writing sessions – or for one who is writing several items at once.

If you are a novelist, you should have a detailed spreadsheet listing out scenes, plot lines, and timelines—and one for character traits (physical descriptions, language habits, and their history). I also suggest producing these same detailed spreadsheets if you are writing non-fiction—particularly a memoir or family history. Take the time to do this and you will have an easier time ensuring consistency and you will reduce your chance for error.

Use a style sheet as your rule book

  • List names: first, last and nicknames used. Verify those names to make sure you are spelling them correctly in the manuscript, because your style sheet is the rule of law!
  • List your punctuation rules, including serial comma or no serial comma, em dash or en dash, other rules special to your manuscript.
  • List your rules for using numerals and words for numbers. Are you following Chicago Manual of Style for your number handling or does it make sense for you to have rules specific to your manuscript? Don’t decide this arbitrarily—ask your editor what might be the best way to handle them, and always treat them consistently.
  • List abbreviations and their extended meanings. Also note why they are abbreviated and when they should be spelled out.
  • List words that are always capped, and those that have unconventional capitalization specific to your manuscript.
  • List words that you make up, along with their meanings, capitalization rules, and spellings.
  • Note anything unusual that the writer or copy editor should know about. For example, any oddities that would not appear in standard language. Keep in mind that the reader may not have previous knowledge of certain phrases—and your job as writer is to guide the reader through your journey or story.
  • If you have author notes or footnotes, spell out your rules for those ahead of time so you know when you should be using them.
  • Last, but not least, make a comprehensive spreadsheet of characters, including the spelling of their full names, descriptions, timelines and special characteristics in mannerisms, gait, language, etc.  If you have people in your book, you should always use this, no matter if it is fiction or non-fiction.
You don’t have to start your style sheet as you put the first word on paper, but it will help you in the long run if you do. If you have already written your first draft, sit down now and prepare a style sheet as you reread your manuscript.