Writers rely on editors to detect inconsistencies in character and plot, to repair grammar errors, and to correct misspellings—in short, to make your manuscript memorable for its message, not its mistakes.
Beyond the reputable dictionary, copyeditors turn to style manuals, such as The Chicago Manual of Style and The Associated Press Stylebook, which provide “rules” or, more accurately, guidelines for grammar, usage, spelling, and punctuation. In this way, we determine whether to spell out numbers below one hundred (à la Chicago) or to use numbers for anything above nine (via AP). Applying one style to a manuscript helps ensure consistency and correctness in the prose. Rather than become distracted by the fact that a book title is in italics (The Handmaid’s Tale) on one page but put in quotes (“The Handmaid’s Tale”) on another, readers immerse themselves in the flow of your prose.
Editors and writers make their own stylistic choices too. Maybe you like the serial comma championed by Chicago, yet you prefer AP’s instruction to add just an apostrophe (without s) to form the possessive, as in “Illinois’ senators.” Maybe you fancy “t-shirt” with a lowercase t as opposed to Merriam-Webster’s “T-shirt.” And who else but you can decide the spelling of your characters’ names?
A copyeditor creates a style sheet to chart all these choices, essentially creating a personalized style guide for your manuscript. Your style sheet can be used by anyone who works on your book and referred to or updated for future projects, too, which comes in handy for trilogies, serial novels, monthly magazines, weekly newsletters, and other recurring projects.
Parts of a Style Sheet
Although style sheets are adapted to individual projects, common elements reliably appear. Let’s look at the style sheet I created for Melissa McInerney’s middle-grade historical novel, The Gamekeeper’s Apprentice.
This section identifies the sources used for editing your project. For fiction, creative nonfiction, and most humanities texts, the go-to guides are the most recent editions of The Chicago Manual of Style and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Of course, if your protagonist is an attorney arguing a case in Sydney, then the Australian Guide to Legal Citation might serve as an apt reference. Similarly, since the setting of The Gamekeeper’s Apprentice is an estate in Scotland, the online Dictionary of the Scots Language proved indispensable.
This section notes the writer’s grammar, usage, punctuation, and style preferences. Even if a writer chooses to adhere to a manual, such as Chicago, it helps to record the stylistic guidelines used for the project all in one place. To highlight certain areas or for ease of reference, this section may be divided into smaller categories. For example, The Gamekeeper’s Apprentice style sheet includes “Dates and Numbers” and “Miscellaneous,” the latter of which indicates how to format chapters.
This section serves as a mini-dictionary for your book or project. Any word that needs a spelling verified by a standard dictionary appears here, as do the writer’s preferences for words that have more than one accepted spelling. Do you like “okay” or “OK”? “Chaise lounge” or “chaise longue”? For The Gamekeeper’s Apprentice, I noted the correct spellings of Scottish words (both slang and standard) and confirmed that they were used during the specific time period of the book. Because the number of terms wasn’t unwieldy, all the character names, with short descriptions, also appeared in this section.
Personalized and Professional
A style sheet conforms to the needs of your book. Instead of listing all the terms for The Gamekeeper’s Apprentice under the letters of the alphabet, I could’ve created a separate category just for character names. Perhaps your style sheet will include a section for “Abbreviations” or “Chapter Openings.” While its contents may vary, your style sheet should serve as an efficient, compendious style guide for your project. With a style sheet in hand, you can focus on writing instead of trying to remember niggling yet significant details. Personalized and professional, a style sheet indicates that you and your editor take your writing seriously. And when that happens, your readers reap the benefits of a polished publication.