I have always used style sheets. This might be because I come from an academic background where adhering to style criteria is a required component for a submission. So I found it strange to learn most fiction writers skip this helpful step.
What is a style sheet?
A style sheet is a single document where you define all the writing rules that apply to your project. The sheet must include all your grammar preferences, for example using American spelling vs British spelling, and any unique aspects of your style. A good style sheet includes anything and everything that might cause an editor to have a red pen moment or to scratch his or her head in confusion.
The items found on style sheet vary based on each book’s need, but some examples are:
– If you want to include contractions, or not.
– If numbers should be spelled out every time, or not.
– If you want to allow for misspelled (or misused) words to indicate a character ‘s lack of education, or not.
– If ellipses dots should include a space between dots, or not.
The creation of this file will help you stay consistent while you write, but it takes on its greatest role once the work is finished and you send it off for publication.
Here are three reasons every writer need a style sheet.
1. It saves money on editing:
I bet that got your attention! Who couldn’t use a new way to shave a few bucks off editing costs? Style sheets can save time, and Time = Money! The reason style sheets work is because editors read everything from the perspective of what is “correct” within their set of grammatical truths. However, sometimes while trying to make your work fit their rigorous rules, editors disrupt the prose. That means someone (you or the editor) must go back over the novel again, pulling out these changes. This extra level of work will cost you, if not in money, then in time. You might miss a critical deadline during these revisions. A good style sheet prevents this problem from happening in the first place by clearly conveying your desires to your editor.
2. It helps sell more ebooks:
If you’re a digitally published writer (and who isn’t at this point), keeping a style sheet just got a whole lot more important. Last week Amazon announced their intention of publicly red flagging ebooks that suffer from any formatting and/or writing mistakes.
The official Amazon notice was:
[important]Our shared goal is to provide the best digital reading experience for customers on Kindle. When customers contact us with quality issues in a book you published, we validate the issues and send them immediately to you to fix. Starting February 3, 2016 we will begin showing customers a warning message on the Amazon.com Kindle store detail pages of books that contain several validated quality issues. We will remove this message for a book as soon as we receive the fixed file from you and verify the corrections — typically within 2 business days. We understand that even with the best quality controls, defects sometimes make it through. That’s why we’ve limited this messaging to books with several issues. Books with more serious quality issues will continue to be suppressed from sale.[/important]
This policy means proof editing and ebook creation done by a professional ebook designer is not a luxury. It’s a necessity. Believe it or not, a good style sheet will also help your interior book designer. While coding your files, they will need to adjust the layout of your work. That creates opportunities for a good designer to catch mistakes. However, it also introduces the possibility they will inadvertently fix something you didn’t want them to fix. A style sheet creates an additional layer of coverage, and helps you get you the highest quality end product for your ebook.
3. It makes writing a series cleaner:
Between projects even within the same fictional universe, it’s not uncommon for the details to get fuzzy over time. You might not care if the first book in the series features curly quote marks and the second book has straight quote marks, but someone else will. And that person will make it sound like a grammarpocalypse in their review. A style sheet serves as a resource for these details and for invented spellings, unusual capitalization, proper names and/or italic rules. Make sure you expand your style sheet document with a record of the fonts and visual affects your cover designer and book formatter used on the first book. This will help keep any new books in the series looking visually akin to the older ones. Since every writer wants to stick around for a long time, and share new adventures from their fictional worlds, the lovely style sheet you made for book one is going to come in handy every time you create a new project in the series.
Although fantasy writers are often the neediest genre for a style sheet, in part for their large custom lexicon, every writer needs one. We all include personal writing variations. Oxford comma anyone? Perhaps you like to start sentences with “and” or to occasionally end with a preposition. Maybe you have a character that’s big on using clipped speech or sentence fragments. We often don’t think about our writing preferences, until someone else comes along and questions/fixes them. By then it may be too late to convey your wishes to the right people.
Although some editors send their clients a style sheet form, having your own document is still important. For one thing it communicates what you feel needs special attention within your work, rather than relying on your editor’s judgment. Don’t skimp on this critical part of every novel, and when you’re done creating your style sheet, add a copy to your author bugout kit for safe keeping.
If you’re looking for an example of a style sheet template, you can find a nice one over at Sue Archer’s blog.
Do you have a style sheet? Please share your experiences (good or bad) in the comments.
19 thoughts on “3 Reasons Authors Need Style Sheets”
Thank you for this eye-opening and informative post. You have opened up a new world for me as a nonfiction writer and a fiction writer. I’m working on a fictional series for Dig Leader Mysteries. I know that creating a style sheet will save me a lot of headaches & money!
Plus I run an author support group for Redwood Writers, so I will be sure to share your post on their Facebook page. Seems like bloggers could use a style sheet too.:D
Thanks for the mention, Robin! I love how you related style sheets to the design aspect of the process. Consistency is definitely important – it’s something readers notice subconsciously as they go through a book, and a style sheet helps you maintain it.
I hate hearing about situations where an author had to fight with an editor over style. My role as an editor is to provide informed advice, but ultimately it is the author’s work, not mine. Style sheets help to avoid misunderstandings, but it’s also important to ask questions, be flexible, and show respect for the author’s preferences.
Happy to send some bloglove your way. : )
Thank you for including the statement from Amazon. It sounds as if they are only going to flag books where readers have noted serious quality issues. I was worried they were going to use some sort of automated spell-checker which could be an issue if you’ve included, say, foreign words or deliberately misspelled something in dialogue to indicate a character’s dialect. That said, I will keep a lookout after February 3rd to make sure my own books are not flagged. Proofreading is essential, as you say, but I will still produce my own Kindle and ePub files, trusting in Amazon’s automated checking process to point out any issues.
The Amazon announcement is an expansion of an ongoing policy. For at least three or four years they have been emailing authors about user complaints. Now they will just make that information public. However, if your books have not been pinged with bad reader comments it seems unlikely you would have an announcement attached to your work on February 3rd. Frankly, I see this as a big win for good authors, it’s going to help kick out some of the really awful stuff.
Hi Robin. My publishing house gives us a style sheet, and I’ve added to that. They really are helpful, especially for writing a series. Great tips.
More supporters for the pro style sheet side! : ) I guess we need some “I heart Style Sheets” t-shirts.
I’ve always been a proponent of this, regardless of whether you write fiction or nonfiction. I used to have to do this when I worked in government and wrote reports, and it just makes everything easier, even in fiction. And yikes, that Amazon announcement both cheers and chills me. Good news for readers, less so for authors.
I agree! I’ve worked with the same editor since grad school, (so a lot of years) yet when I send her a new project she still wants my style sheet. It just makes her job faster, and we don’t need to go back and forth with as many revisions.
I think Amazon must have a good reason for this announcement, they must not be getting the level of quality they want, or a good response from their individually emailed requests to fix bad content. Taking bad comments public is a harsh step, but it will create some powerful author motivation to step it up. We should know more soon.
I keep a glossary of terms that includes odd capitalization or “special” fantasy terms; a doc for any character-specific style choices and a list of colloquialisms. My covers fonts etc are all in the photoshop layer files and/or Scrivener’s metadata, but I might start keeping a separate file for that now you mention it. Thanks!
I’ve always kept formatting issues (fonts, ellipsis dots, smart quotes, etc) consistent in a series by setting Word or Scrivener preferences ahead of time and saving a template file in another location. Trad publishers can change the formatting as they see fit, and for submitting I always the same standard formatting template, unless the publisher specifies something else, so I’m not sure I’d get any value in keeping notes on my own formatting choices. I can’t think of a time that I was unable to remember my own invented rules for distinguishing telepathy or magical communication, but I tend to do the same thing across series, and if I forgot I’d be more likely to look at a MS than a note sheet.
Re: the amazon thing, you may want to read this:
It doesn’t sound like they’re going to flag people for an occasional error, and I think the “formatting” mistakes they’re talking about refer to incorrectly rendered Kindle formatting, which would mean the person’s either got a bad designer or doesn’t know how to format the file themselves.
Everyone has their own systems. Glad you found something that works for you.
‘suppressed from sale’
That is a chilling statement.
They do have a way with words. : ( But on the other hand I have read some really badly formatted and proofed ebooks. I do wonder how bad it has to be for them to flag something. I guess we will know in a few weeks.
I’ll be honest in that this is something I’ve never heard mentioned before, since I self publish. I have a proofreader but not an editor. I go round with my proofreader from time to time when I have a character dialog, like with a street gang member or with an old farmer that cuts off word endings. For example, I might have one say “I was thinkin’ that you…” instead of using ‘thinking’. I don’t do this to the point of being annoying to the reader; perhaps once or twice in a scene with a character. I think it lends authenticity to their speech. My proofreader will try to correct it every time. The corrected version just doesn’t ring true.
I think this is just what I need. I’m going to start working one up now as I begin my new project. Maybe then when my proofreader gets her hands on it, she’ll have a guide from me that shows her exactly why I’ve done things that I’ve done.
Hi Anne, I think most fiction writers don’t use them. When you write nonfiction for journals or academic presses, (like I did) they’re mandatory. Having one for your character’s clipped speech is a perfect example. If you give your editor rules they should stop fighting you at every turn.
This is such a good idea. In a way I’ve started making a style sheet while I was writing my first draft, but it’s mostly just notes in my notebook to ensure consistency. Having an actual sheet of everything important rather than a very messy page in my notebook sounds much better!
Hi Sarina, You will still need that story bible, which your notes in a notebook sounds like, but a style sheet would be a great addition.