The Style Sheet

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Jun 09 2010

Nathan Bransford recently did a post on the importance of a series bible for authors and it kicked me into gear to do a post I’ve been meaning to do for a long time. A post on the importance of a style sheet.

As Nathan explains, a series bible is helpful for the author to keep track of characters, phrases, worlds, and whatever else you might have in your series that carries through from book to book. A style sheet is similar, but meant as a resource not just for the author but for your editors as well.

Any published author has probably seen the style sheet that comes back from the copyeditor with your copyedited manuscript. It’s the sheet the copyeditor prepares as she’s editing to make sure she maintains the style of your book and series. For example, if you’ve decided, in your world, that Maribelle is actually spelled Mariebell, that will be on the style sheet. If your world capitalizes “werewolf,” that will be on the style sheet. But why wait for the copyeditor to put together your style sheet? Why not do it yourself?

I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I’ve fielded phone calls from authors dismayed with the changes a copyeditor has made. Changes that were technically correct (according to the Chicago Manual of Style), but not necessarily in line with what the author was trying to convey.

Let me make it clear. A style sheet is different from a series bible. A style sheet does not include the nitty-gritty details of your world or your characters. It’s for editing purposes. A style sheet should include spellings of names or stylistic changes you’ve made to the spelling of other common words. For example, if you’ve decided that “Prom” is capitalized throughout your book, that would be something you would include on the style sheet. “Prom” is not technically a proper noun.

When your manuscript is finished and your style sheet is finalized, submit them together to your editor. I can’t guarantee the copyeditor won’t try to change some of your style to fit what Chicago has to say, but it will very possibly save you a lot of stetting in the future.


34 responses to “The Style Sheet”

  1. What great advice… I've written thirty books and I never thought of this??

    Style sheet.
    Series bible.

    Got it.

  2. Avatar Joyce says:

    I never even thought of doing this. Great idea!

  3. Great information here- I'd never thought about it either but it makes sense.

  4. Do you see the lightbulb splutter to life? I could have done with this in my edits for a medieval scottish that was peppered with ye olde speake in it 🙂

  5. Avatar Nancy says:

    I am a freelance copyeditor and quite used to making style sheets (some publishers call them "conventions sheets), but when an author helps me out by making one to send along with a manuscript, I'm always overjoyed! It helps us both out–I'm not making changes per CMS that my author later has to stet and my author isn't cursing my name as he/she stets the heck out of the manuscript. Yes, do a style sheet for your book!!

  6. Avatar wry wryter says:

    Now I know what to call all those little yellow sticky notes stuck on the wall above my computer.

    Maybe I should organize them…naw…searcing on my hands and knees among the dusty wires behind my $39.99 computer desk for a little piece of yellow paper with the name of my main character's ex's, sisters, boyfriend's,father's,name, and finding it, is what makes what I do so much fun.

  7. I don't make a series bible. I make a style sheet. I find that the information I want to make clear for the ce is the same info I need to keep myself consitent.

  8. Avatar Bratty says:

    I'd like to see an example of one, if anybody has one…Thanks!

  9. Avatar Yossi Mandel says:

    This is awesome advice. Something I would never think of – and I work with style sheets every day! Thank you.

  10. Avatar Caitie says:

    I would love it if authors would do this. I was reading a manuscript and saw a couple words that were sometimes capitalized, sometimes not while being used the same way. It would be great to know which they meant.

  11. Avatar Sangu says:

    I didn't know about the existence of the actual style sheet, so this was such an eye-opener! Thanks for this post, Jessica, it was so helpful!

  12. Avatar Bernita says:

    One has to watch for the elimination of hyphens as a house style. "Minimall" instead of mini-mall" might well be read as "minimal", thereby inducing an outraged and confused WTF? from a reader.
    A list of other language words such as Gaelic, and specialized terms is helpful and saves the proof reader time checking spelling.

  13. Great advice. I do this informally but your post prods me to be more systematic about it. Makes complete sense.

  14. Avatar magolla says:

    I started a series bible, but I've gotten bogged down in the details. Is there a generic formula/list/sheet that I can follow to get a start?
    My series bible started off with names, characteristics, what page I introduced them (sometimes not physically, but simply their name) and the timeline.
    Am I overthinking this process? Or do I need more detail?

  15. OMFG, I'm going on my third published book, and I had no idea 1) what that sheet was called and 2) that I could write one of my own! This will save my poor copyeditor so much trouble when it comes to my Chicago Manual possessives! Thank you!

  16. I *love* this idea. It's particularly useful if you get different copyeditors for different books! Thank you!

  17. Avatar Anaquana says:

    Bratty (and anyone else interested in seeing what one looks like), Anna Katherine (Anna Genoese and Katherine Crighton) posted their style sheet for Salt and Silver here

  18. I'm so glad you posted about this. As a former technical writer and editor, I've long used style sheets to keep track of specifics in a document. It extends well to fiction.

    One useful way to use one is to create boxes according to letters of the alphabet, that way you can alphabetize your list. Generally this should fit on one page.

  19. Avatar Amanda J. says:

    Oh, interesting. Thanks for sharing! I really need to start both of these just to help myself.

  20. Avatar green_knight says:

    Yes *please* send a style sheet. It will save your copy editor much embarassment when they find that the misspelled term they just marked up is meant to be written like this. If you give us a choice between dwarfs and dwarves, we'll pick the one that seems appropriate – if you say 'it's always dwarfs other than for character x who always says it wrong' we'll leave well alone.

    Most – though sadly not all – fiction copy editors are very well aware that fiction authors make choices – particularly in dialogue or first person POV – that are not 'by the book'. I think most of us will be less offended at 'using xx is a stylistic choice, please stet' beforehand, than 'the CE butchered my prose' afterwards. (I reckon that if the editor is happy with the language, I should be – unless something makes it hard to understand what is being said, it's my job to leave well alone.)

  21. Avatar Taryn Tyler says:

    usually I don't go for the whole writing process sheets thing. but this might actually be useful in a non creativity stunting way. thanks.

    (oh and apparently the style sheet for this comment says no caps whatsoever)

  22. Avatar Suzi McGowen says:

    I handed my style sheet out along with my first chapter to my crit group, and they'd never heard of it before. (Some of them are published authors.)

    I will point them to this article!

  23. Good grief, how profound! This requires entirely too much common sense for me to have come up with it all on my own. Now I have a scratch on my forehead from smacking it too hard.

  24. Avatar Jesse says:

    Especially if the publisher doesn't use the Chicago Manual of Style. There are some that use the Oxford Manual, others that use the AP Manual, and still others that have their own manual. It gets passed on through to the copy editor when you have your own style sheet. Very helpful and less stress on all parties.

  25. I've been doing this from day one so I don't mess it up *lol* I have such a collection of notebooks!

  26. Avatar Jemi Fraser says:

    I've never heard of a style sheet before – I'm still on that learning curve – but I love the idea. Thanks!

  27. Avatar wry wryter says:

    Jessica, thank you so much for this post. It has been a lightbulb-moment for me.
    And, Anaquana thank you, thank you, thank you,the page was VERY helpful.
    HEY…we all learned something today and as Ms. Stewart says, "that's a good thing."

  28. Avatar Vatche says:

    Thank you for your insights, Jessica, from now on I will create a series sheet…hmm…maybe I should do a series sheet for the rest of my books too. Off to work for me and write on!

  29. I use a Filemaker database with related tables for descriptions of everything from character, to place, to technology. It's amazing how much time I save by having all that at my fingertips using a simple database search feature.

  30. Avatar Dana Fredsti says:

    That's a great idea, especially for us writers who habitually forget this sort of thing while working on a project. And if it makes our copy editors happy, win/win!

  31. I didn't know that's what I'd done. I needed it for my sanity. LOL

    That said, I should go back now and make sure it's complete. ;D Thanks for the tip!

  32. So interesting! I've never heard about this before. It makes perfect sense though. Thanks for sharing.

  33. Avatar barbarienne says:

    My favorite tip on this subject (particularly useful for science fiction and fantasy writers):

    If you are working in MS Word, you cann add all your names and jargon to a separate dictionary file when you spellcheck. Then you can export that dictionary as an alphabetical list, and it will be an excellent starting point for your style sheet.

  34. Great idea. I'm a big believer in doing what ever is necessary to keep my writing organized and consistent. Lord knows I need all the help I can get.