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Posted on May 27, 2024

What Is an Editorial Style Sheet? [+Templates]

A style sheet contains a list of editorial decisions to follow when editing a text. The purpose of a style sheet is to help an editor or author maintain consistency in things like grammar, spelling, and word choice throughout a single book, or even across a series of publications. It is usually based on a larger style guide, but is more customized to the specific project you’re working on, allowing you some creative freedom. But what exactly goes into a style sheet, and how do you create one for yourself? 

In this article, we’ll outline the different components of an editorial style sheet, give you some tips on how to use it, and even provide you with two customizable templates to use for your upcoming projects.

Style sheets come after a style guide

Although some of the content may overlap, the functions of a style guide and style sheet are different. Style guides (such as Chicago or APA) include every tiny language detail that users should adhere to on a general basis. Oxford comma or no Oxford comma? Hyphen or dash? These are the types of fundamental guidelines that a style guide can provide. Because they are comprehensive reference guides, they aren't particularly accessible — often coming in at over one thousand pages — and are something editors or writers may go to for specific questions rather than use on the go.

Style sheets, on the other hand, focus on the main stylistic choices in the current text, rather than listing all possible language conundrums you can think of. This key information is usually created by the editor or author themselves and is intended to help them stick to their editorial choices, as well as help other collaborators maintain consistency throughout the process. It’s not so much about language correctness, but about uniformity.

Now, let’s look at some practical examples of what this might look like in real life.

They help you stay consistent

Style sheets are useful for both writers and editors as a place where they can quickly note down stylistic choices to remember for the current manuscript they’re working on. They outline a handful of spellings, punctuation, and other creative preferences. Let's take a look at Dune, the seminal science fiction novel by Frank Herbert, as an example. 

Set over 20,000 years in the future, in a world where languages have evolved, many terms that Herbert uses in Dune are made up, such as Muad’Dib, Bene Gesserit, and gom jabbar – and that's just from the first page! All these words are uniquely created and their spellings must be kept consistent to keep readers engaged, so it’s likely that the editor assembled a style sheet to keep track. Beyond newly created words, there are plenty of linguistic and creative decisions that Herbert deploys as well, such as: ‘Voice’ being spelled with a capital V to distinguish the vocal powers of the Bene Gesserit from their normal speech, and always having internal thoughts written in italics.

Each of these decisions may seem small individually, but here’s another reminder that all the examples above are from the first page of a 500-page book. There are dozens of other decisions that an author and editor will need to keep track of that won’t necessarily be outlined in a style guide — and inform the proofreader and typesetter about — each of which had to be maintained not only in the first Dune novel but throughout Herbert’s entire 6 book saga.

So to summarize, here are the three main ways that style sheets are beneficial:

  1. Maintains consistency: Consistency is key to keeping readers engaged. You don't want them stopping to question whether Lady Jessica is the same character as Lady Jesica or why Lasguns have suddenly become Lazerguns. This consistency becomes even more important with a series where a sense of linguistic continuity helps keep each book connected.
  2. Keeps you organized: Rather than having editorial decisions scattered on post-its all over your office, or even just remaining in the author’s head, a style sheet is a great way to get all that key information organized in one place that is quick and easy to reference.
  3. Facilitates collaboration: You might have all the editorial decisions in your head, but when working with collaborators (like other editors and proofreaders) it’s important to have reference material that is quick and easy to share. This reduces any wasted time with back-and-forth questions and should make the whole process more straightforward as you hand over your work. Basically, it makes sure that everyone is always on the same page about any creative decisions that have been made and saves you some admin time.

Now that we’ve seen the value of using style guides, let's see how they're useful for different genres.

Style sheets are useful for all genres

Style sheets are well worth taking the time to create for all genres of writing, from fantasy novels to non-fiction science books.

Fiction

With fantasy or sci-fi novels, there will undoubtedly be varied character names as well as made-up terminology for places, weapons, and ancient artifacts! Going back to our example of Dune, Herbert often creates terms by combining words from other languages or crafts entirely fictional words for new concepts: lasguns are energy weapons, the Sardaukar are elite fighters, and Arrakis is the desert planet known as Dune. These dozens of new words can be easy to lose track of or slightly misspell, but style sheets help keep everything in order. 

Non-fiction

Factual text will often include plenty of specific terminology or abbreviations that need to be confirmed and kept track of. Let's take a look at Sapiens by Yuval Harari which includes plenty of technical terminology like Lascaux Cave, Sungir, Göbekli Tepe. Using the correct term with the correct spelling is important for non-fiction books to maintain the author’s authority and trust in the subject. Once an editor has checked the terms, they can note them down clearly in their style sheet and save themselves from having to Google or use an enormous style guide each time they’re in doubt.

They should be functional and personalized

As we’ve seen, the main purpose of a style sheet is to help you work more efficiently. There’s no right or wrong way to design it: its most important feature is that it should be personalized to the specific project you’re working on. That means that style sheets vary widely. Nonetheless, there are a few common components that you’ll often come across in any style sheet.

Freelance editor Jon Oliver set up the style sheet for one of his projects like this, in a spreadsheet format:

 Setting up your style sheets in a spreadsheet format is particularly helpful if you're a visual person, or if you're working on a book with a lot of names and made-up terms to keep track of, like in fantasy, for instance.

Linguistic preferences, e.g. 

First of all, many style sheets will start by noting which style guide it uses as its base and whether the text is in American or British English. Some other linguistic preferences that you might want to mark down include: 

  • Writing style (academic, casual, etc.)
  • Numbers and date formats
  • Terminology e.g. OK vs. okay
  • Preferred abbreviations

Punctuation, e.g. 

Though the style guide will govern how punctuation is used, some editors prefer to include some quick references to how punctuation is used in the current text too, such as: 

  • Single vs. double quotation marks
  • Ellipses spacing or not 
  • Oxford comma or not
  • Sentence case vs. title case

Creative choices, e.g.

The bulk of a style sheet should be focused on the creative choices that you can’t find outlined in a style guide, like: 

  • Made up words and names
  • Overall timeline of events
  • Formatting and layout, e.g. use of italics

Creating a style sheet is a running process, with new entries being added as you go through the text. Depending on your needs, it can be as simple as a list of bullet points and a couple of headers to keep it organized, or a more complex spreadsheet. The layout and where you choose to set up your style guide is entirely up to you. You could keep it analog, if it pleases you, though setting up a simple Word document or Google Doc might be more convenient for everyone. 

Here’s another example of how editor Jon has set up a style sheet, this time in a Word document:

There is no specific order or headers in this style sheet; it is a simple list of things Jon wants to remember, ordered by when they first appear in the book. This is particularly suitable for texts where there is limited worldbuilding and made-up terms.

Regardless, the best way to structure your style sheet is to break it down into easy-to-digest sections and divide it into headings that make sense to you. This will help keep the author, the editor, and anyone else collaborating on the piece on the same page when it comes to all editorial decisions.

Style Sheet Templates

If you're looking for some inspiration to get your own style sheets started, we've put together two templates that you can download for free below: 

FREE RESOURCE

FREE RESOURCE

Editorial Style Sheet Templates

Set up a sleek and easy-to-use style to keep track of all your creative decisions.

We hope you find them helpful. 


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