What is a style sheet and how do I make one?

An under-used tool amongst writers, the style sheet is the go-to reference for editors. Why? Simply put: A style sheet helps you maintain consistency, keep track of important dates and characters, and even reminds you whether you preferred the Oxford comma or not (you heathen). Anything you want to put into it, you should, but I’ll lay out some key elements you should include in your style sheet below.

What is a style sheet?

A style sheet is an organized dumping ground of the facts of your work. While most useful in fiction or sequential works (in any genre), they can be a great way to organize your thoughts on any project—and to remind you whether it’s Monet or Manet when you’ve had a phrase too many.

What should I include on a style sheet?

You can put anything you want on your style sheet, but less is more unless you want to spend more time on it than your work. It’s more about the exceptions… after listing the rules. You should think about including anything you looked up since you’ll likely be looking it up again in the future, even just to verify your memory. Save yourself the hassle and put it into your style sheet the first time. You can always cut it later if it doesn’t belong.

A shorter non-fiction document will not require an extensive style sheet. Don’t make more work for yourself by looking for extra things to put down. You have a bibliography or works cited for your research; the style sheet is about your preferences and the nuances of the work.

How to create a style sheet

Organize your style guide from big picture to little picture, where big picture includes the rules of language you followed (if any!) and little picture records the eye colour of every character. Three seconds spent typing “green” can save you on page 304 when someone is staring into their…? What colour, again? Just look it up, and it’s one less thing for an editor to flag.

Elements of a style sheet:

  1. Syntax stuff
    • What dictionary did you use to verify your spelling?
    • Are you following a specific style guide, such as Chicago Manual of Style or Associated Press? If so, are there times you break with the style guide on purpose and want to make sure anyone editing your work would know that?
    • Did you follow a set of rules throughout the work that you’d need to remember if you took a long break from the project? For example, do you use italics to reflect when someone is speaking internally?
    • How did you handle numbers in your text? (If it wasn’t consistent, give that a think and put your decision on your style sheet.)
    • How did you handle the typography? Literally, how did you arrange your typeset (aka document)? Did you prefer spaces around your em dashes or having them closed—like I do on this blog—for example?
    • Are there specific spellings you want to keep track of or a reviewer would want to verify?
      • In non-fiction, you’d record unusual or foreign words (such as French in an English text) or industry-specific terminology.
      • In fiction, this could include names of characters, cities, religions, etc.; made-up words with their rough definitions (and pronunciations if you’re working on that as well); and your preferred spelling of words, especially if contradicting the style guide.

Many of your favourite appendices were created from a style sheet, in fact, and no serial novelist has gone without one and survived their critics.

  1. Timelines
    • When was your main character born (whether your reader needs to know or not)? Same with all other characters. It’s good to include marriages and divorces, pregnancies and their results, and career changes as well.
    • Important dates, such as when protagonist and antagonist meet for the first time or someone makes a discovery. I’m not saying get as fancy as this interactive map timeline Netflix did for The Witcher, but you could take some inspiration from the level of detail.
    • Key history moments, if world-building or incorporating research. Keeping these straight avoids plot holes and failed dramatic arcs.
  1. Characters
    • Record the name (and aliases or nicknames), birthday, appearance, language, and tangible details of your characters. If they change over time, record that here as well. If you’re working on a long novel or are extremely meticulous, consider including pagination for reference.
    • Are they religious or do they have a moral or behavioural code they follow? Is it integral to their being? Do they have a special power because of this background?
    • What are the character’s preferences, if important? Do they have allergies or other special considerations that could come up more than once in a story?
    • If using historical figures, keep a list of them and your references for their biographies. Chances are, you’ll need to return to these references frequently and an editor may also need to check something during review. For example, is this quote correct and from the right person? Are the years correct?
  1. Geography and politics
    • What are the main regions in the work? Include key points of information about their leaders, main exports and imports, language, religion, neighbours, etc. In non-fiction work, this would largely be covered under spellings above since it’s familiar ground.
    • What’s the lay of the land like, if relevant? In fiction, it would be specific geological formations that impact the story and would be put into a map. If you described it in the book, you may want to copy and paste that into your style sheet so you don’t describe it differently elsewhere.
  1. World-building elements (fiction)
    • If you’ve created a special universe where magic exists or science has advanced past anything seen today, your rules need to be listed. If Agent X can only be countered by Formula Y, then this needs to be consistent throughout your story in order to be believed. An editor will flag this for you as long as you have your preference (or rule) recorded on your style sheet.

While a style sheet stays largely on the facts and usages side of things for non-fiction projects, it’s use as a reference tool is incredibly diverse. Editors will go first to a style sheet to verify something in the text, and from there to the dictionary or style guide indicated if the answer isn’t on the style sheet itself. If the answer still isn’t apparent, we can query you, the author, about it. Often enough the answer is there, and this makes our comments and edits much more effective as we can resolve most issues on our own.

What makes it most useful to you is when you’re writing your 3rd technical manual for work and can’t remember if you called it the Pull-Latch Receiver or the Pull Latch Receiver in the last one. Or when you’re doing a flashback and don’t want to go back and re-read your own novel to find that really important scene midway through the book. Or when you’re looking for a character to kill off and realize you went absolutely nowhere with poor Jane’s story line in the first novel. I guess we have a volunteer.

Avoiding common yet destructive plot holes comes with organization and a keen eye to detail. Reduce your chances of creating one and jarring your reader out of their experience by fact-checking yourself with a style sheet.

And, of course, if you’d rather not make one yourself, you can contact me.

Published by M Gardner

Editor and writing coach. I'm keen on helping establish and grow unique authorial voices for maximum impact in the reading world.

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