The Writer’s Toolbox – Self-Editing in Style, Part I: The Style Sheet

You’ve finished the draft of your book. Your plot and characterization are solid, the writing’s tight, and the pace stays on track from start to finish. Now You’re ready to go through the whole thing and check that your spelling, grammar, and punctuation are all lined up and that your characters and places stay consistent throughout. Sounds easy?until you get midway through.

Suddenly you realize that you can’t remember if Bob’s eyes started out blue or green, but they’re definitely brown now. You deliberately decided to lowercase “god,” so why is it capitalized here? And wait a minute, why is that event on a Friday when It’s the day after an event that definitely took place on a Monday?

Enter the style sheet.

Get Ready
Style sheets often conjure up images of web design or programming, but in editor-land they’re a mainstay when tackling any project?especially longer works, whether fiction or nonfiction. And they’re not just for editors, either. In fact, many use them to keep the elements of their own written work consistent?a sort of personal field guide or reference. It’s an incredibly valuable tool when You’re editing your work and need to check whether a particular spelling or situation is consistent with the rest of the story.

Like a formal style guide, which might tell you whether to capitalize certain words or how to abbreviate “Governor General,” the style sheet is a quick reference to help you track the way you apply language and tell your story. Does this sound like an incredibly broad scope? Style sheets can encompass everything from spelling and punctuation to characterization or plot timelines, depending on your needs, but they don’t have to cover every single word you use?just what you feel is important to remember or check on later. Your style sheet will be as unique as your writing and your book.

Get Set
The simplest form of style sheet is a list of words and terms, but they can get incredibly complex depending on what they cover. For list-type style sheets, I like Microsoft Excel because I can easily add rows (there’s no such thing as a complete style guide?they’re always evolving) and I can reorder alphabetically to find terms and phrases more easily. But you can use any word-processing software or note-taking app, or even write out important names and terms in hard copy.

The idea is to get the important information down in a form That’s a convenient reference for you?and the easier to use the better, because you’ll find yourself using it a lot.

Go!
When to get started? There’s no right answer here. You can work up the style sheet as you go (if You’re a fiction writer, chances are you already have something similar going for characters? physical and emotional traits), but you can also create it during the editing stage if you feel it would hinder the flow of your writing. In fact, most copyeditors create a style sheet from scratch for each new project they take on, which means all that magic happens during the editing phase. It’s your style sheet, so go with what works for you.

Now that you’ve got the concept down, You’re ready to get started. Over the next few installments of this mini-series we’ll look at the specifics of creating style sheets for spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Later we’ll get into style sheets for characters and places, timeline creation, and beyond. Made-up languages? Alien worlds? Alternate history? Anything and everything that makes your written work unique gets style sheeted?and your reader will thank you.

Christina M. Frey is a book editor, literary coach, and lover of great writing. For more tips and techniques for your toolbox, follow her on Twitter (@turntopage2) or visit her blog.

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