The Importance of Style Sheets

I realized when I attempted to start that Style Sheet Meme that a lot of people don’t know what a style sheet is. I’ll talk about them today.

A style sheet is a document the copyeditor prepares that lists the grammatical conventions, characters, places, unusual or made-up words, and the distinctive treatment of words (capitalization, hyphenation, favored spellings, etc.) within a particular text. My style sheets are very thorough, because every decision I make is a deliberate one, and I’m often leery that an overzealous proofreader will come along and try to change things.

Style sheets are useful in a number of ways. First, they help the copyeditor maintain consistency. I’ve heard other copyeditors say that they prepare the style sheet once they’re done with a book, and I cannot imagine how that works for them. I refer to the style sheet constantly as I copyedit, because despite having a freakishly good memory for what I’ve read, even I cannot keep track in my head of the hundreds (literally) of possibilities that alternate spellings, hyphenation, and capitalization produce in any book.

For fantasy and science fiction, style sheets are particularly important for a number of reasons: First, SF/F books often come in series, and a thorough style sheet is important for maintaining continuity from one book to the next. Second, these books generally contain a large number of made-up places and terms–the authors are often fantastic world-builders–as well as very unusual names. In any genre, it can be difficult to remember the exact spelling of the name of a minor character you haven’t seen in three hundred pages–Was it “Frederick” or “Frederic”?–but in SF/F you might have an alien proper noun with seven consonants and an apostrophe. :-) Unless you’ve already written it down and can refer back to your list, you’re going to have a hard time maintaining consistency. (And incidentally, the complexity of the world-building and its attendant vocabulary is one reason many copyeditors don’t like to take SF/F–it’s a lot of work that way.)

Style sheets are often provided to the compositor, too, and the compositor can then use them while setting the book to verify that something was indeed done intentionally.

And style sheets are always provided to the proofreader.

As an aside, proofreading (which is comparing the set proof against the manuscript) requires less knowledge than copyediting. Therefore it pays less, partly because proofreaders don’t have to make decisions about how to apply styles and so on: They’re just supposed to make sure the styles the copyeditor decided on were followed. That doesn’t stop some proofreaders, however, from deciding that the copyeditor should have followed strict CMS (Chicago Manual of Style, the basic publishing Bible) and altering things accordingly. (I personally think that authors should always be able to see the proofreader’s alterations, and many publishers don’t show them outright, though they may send along second proof with the changes already incorporated.)

As I’ve noted elsewhere, I dislike CMS for fiction; it is geared toward nonfiction. And despite the fact that some production editors like copyeditors to follow strict CMS, I’ve yet to talk to a single editor (and I’ve talked to many about this) who feels the same way. Tor editor Teresa Nielsen Hayden, for instance, agreed with me about that in this thread, calling strict CMS “potentially disastrous” for fiction. CMS’s rules on hyphenation, for instance, drive authors insane if you follow them exactly, and with good reason: The rules often make fiction less readable. (And yes, I know I’ve promised a post on hyphenation; I’m just really skeptical that I won’t bore people to death with it.)

So my style sheets contain a lot of items in which I’m instructing the proofreader to leave things alone: “Fragments are acceptable with this author’s style” and “Split infinitives are acceptable with this author’s style” and “Please follow style sheet for hyphenation.” (I detest the “never split an infinitive” rule, btw. Everyone knows that the only reason the rule came into being is because some bishop looked at Latin and decided that since Latin didn’t split infinitives, English shouldn’t either, right? And Latin can’t split infinitives, because they’re all one word. Argh. Drives me nuts. Following that rule can result in the most unnatural-sounding sentences. There’s a detailed discussion here if you’re interested. )

I also put into the style sheet things I need to keep track of: Does the author prefer to lowercase or capitalize a full sentence after a colon? What is the author’s preference for showing the possessive of proper singular nouns ending in “s” or “x”? How does the author treat titles? Some publishers have particular house styles they want copyeditors to follow for those rules, and if so I note those on the style sheet.

And of course I put in all the character names and nicknames and epithets and titles. I put in the names of the characters’ pets or horses, and what color and sex they are. I note all the place names, and whether they take a “the” in front. I note the names of wars and laws and the titles of books to which the characters refer. I note the author’s preferred spelling for any words for which there are alternatives. For all of those, I put in the page number for the first time I saw each item.

It goes on and on. I want to be consistent, and if I make a change, I want it to make sense to the author. The book is their baby, after all. By maintaining a thorough style sheet, I am able to have a particular page to show the author if I query or change something in order to produce consistency. To me, that’s just common courtesy.

53 thoughts on “The Importance of Style Sheets”

  1. Dude, give us your post on hyphenation. We won’t be bored. And you can always cut-tag it. :)

    Another great post, thanks.

  2. I guess I’m a geek; I’d like a hyphenation post. :-)

    Also, FYI, your links are broken because they have “smart quotes” (non-ASCII, typographer quote characters) in them along with the regular HTML ASCII quote characters (i.e. “, which should be there) around them….

  3. You are a Goddess among copy editors, which is why I read you.

    I am currently editing for an individual who — though he refuses to admit it — has is own personal style that is delightfully independent of CMS, AP, or GPO (and, sometimes, reason). I’m not sure at what point I should give up on the style sheet and go with a full-on style guide.

  4. I loved this style sheet post! I ended up doing a modified version of that with my thesis. It was the only way of keeping track of whether I was pluralizing media, among other things.

    And please, inflict the hypenation post on us! I’d love to read it.

  5. I refer to the style sheet constantly as I copyedit, because despite having a freakishly good memory for what I’ve read, even I cannot keep track in my head of the hundreds (literally) of possibilities that alternate spellings, hyphenation, and capitalization produce in any book.

    Hee. Even as a proofreader I keep a style sheet, because all too often I’ve seen a word styled one way at page 4 and then find it again on page 400 styled a different way. At first, I relied on memory — but then I’d have to thumb back to where I thought I saw the original spelling and find it again so that I could note it properly. Admittedly, I am very good at remembering “about” where I saw things, but it’s much more efficient to be able to look on my style sheet and jot down the page number than to flip through the manuscript trying to find it again! I’m always amazed when I hear copyeditors and even proofreaders say, “Oh I just keep it all in my head.” Maybe they have photographic memories or read very short works.

    And style sheets are always provided to the proofreader.

    I can’t completely agree with this, because I probably only get a style sheet on a quarter to a third of the books I proofread. Granted, some times, a style sheet may simply not be available, e.g., on scanned reprints. But as a proofreader, I can’t say that this is always true.

    That doesn’t stop some proofreaders, however, from deciding that the copyeditor should have followed strict CMS (Chicago Manual of Style, the basic publishing “Bible”) and altering things accordingly.

    I was always trained to only correct egregious errors, and that author’s style (assuming that the author is using a consistent style) should override even CMS. As a proofreader, I query if there’s any question in my mind as to whether or not something was intentionally styled, or if it is in fact an error, including digressions from CMS. And I generally assume that any book I proofread has already been edited and copyedited, so I try to err on the side of caution and query more often than outright changing things that seem wrong to me.

  6. Can I post a slightly off-topic question? I’ve been doing some freelance editing for not-yet-publishable authors. A couple of them have afterward found agents (but not agents I’ve heard of) who want to change their underlining to italics.

    Has manuscript style changed to italicizing in manuscripts, rather than underlining? Or is this merely the wave of agents working only with POD publishers who won’t actually want to modify the manuscripts, and expect to send them straight through electronically?

    Any thoughts? Thanks,


  7. Commenting from the peanut gallery. As a freelance proofreader with a traditional publisher, I occasionally get page proofs set from the original edited manuscript, and some times these manuscripts use italicizing rather than underlining. Personally, I prefer underlining and standard manuscript format. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be all that standard anymore (at least, not in my limited experience).

  8. Fine, rub it in, Deanna. I misspelled “Frederic” as “Frederick” in the first chapter of my manuscript and caused you no end of pain and suffering. *sniff* I promise never, ever to misspell anything again.

  9. Of the two university presses that are my main clients, one uses italics and one uses underlining. (I copyedit electronic files onscreen.)

  10. I’m curious: Have you encountered any contemporary style manual, usage guide, etc., that maintains that there is a “rule” regarding not ending a sentence with a preposition? I haven’t, but teachers continue to teach it–along with the equally elusive “don’t split an infinitive.”

  11. 1. Hyphenation post: yes, please. I am a hyphenating maniac. I loff all the proper niggling rules about hyphens. Though in my own fiction, I am extremely wont to make up compound (non-hyphenated) words, e.g. “carrybag.”

    2. You left out the bit where you flag/note all instances of extracts and design items. From my designer’s perspective, this is one of the most valuable services a C/E provides. :-)

  12. Yes, please post on hyphenation! I think I’m the only living remnant of the people my (ancient) teachers taught who believes that we need to hyphenate compound modifiers, even if it makes the word processing program “jump” the compound modifier to the next line. (grin) I believe that a three-tiered skirt is different from a three tiered skirt, and yet again different from a three “teared” skirt. (sigh)

    I once took a course from horror writer P. N. Elrod, and the most important thing she taught was that we should do style sheets for our copyeditors’ use. She said to include all made-up words, all characters’ full names, and a note that you want the serial comma left right there in place as God intended. And also that you don’t want your semicolons changed; this, however, assumes that you know how to use ’em properly (but I think those of us in the class did and do.) I thought that once I got anointed with a contract, I’d be allowed to send that style sheet. Since then, though, I have been told that this is a presumption. I haven’t known what to think after that. . . .

    If I ever, God willing and the creek don’t rise, need a copyeditor (because of getting a contract, I mean), I’m going to ask for you.

  13. I’m a professional freelance copyeditor with nearly a decade of experience, and I was taught from day 1, NEVER use underlines, only use italic for emphasis. After all this time, it just looks wrong to me not to have italics.

    With the newer sort of typesetting that goes straight from disk to proof (without keying in or scanning), there is no need to underline and then expect typesetters to make it italic–that attribute does not drop out in file conversion. Mostly, you don’t have to mark a line to indicate italics if the word is already italic.

  14. Two cents from another editor: I’ve been told by several presses I work for that ending a sentence with a preposition is no longer a capital punishment crime. As long as it doesn’t happen too often. AND, the OED reversed their ruling on splitting infinitives–you can do it, again in moderation. If it just sounds “right” to my “ear,” I’ll leave it the way the author has it.

    Then again, I edit nonfiction only.

  15. You’ve just convinced me to create my own style sheet as I write, and to provide it to any publisher that may ever be foolish enough to take me on! (Do copyeditors like that? Or would it just annoy them?)

    And yes, please, hyphenation post!

  16. I agree with you wholeheartedly that you shouldn’t have to underscore italics to tell the comp to set them italic; I think it’s a waste of the copyeditor’s time. However, many of the major fiction publishers require their copyeditors to do so. It’s far easier for me, then, to get the manuscript with the italics indicated by underscore in the first place.

  17. 90% or more of my work is now done online anyway, so it’s less an issue these days, but yes, on hard copy it is easier if they use the underscore to indicate italics. More often than not, they just use italics, and I often include a note: “COMP: Set italics as italics thr.” which seems to do the trick. However, if something really should be underscored (rare, but it does happen with some of my economics/mathematics texts), I have to note that EACH time!

  18. As an aside, proofreading (which is comparing the set proof against the manuscript) requires less knowledge than copyediting.

    //mumbles various rude things under his breath//

    If I had a nickel for every time I’ve had to clean up the problems caused by the vast ignorance of certain copy editors (present company excepted, of course)–ignorance not only of basic physics, astronomy, biology, math, foreign languages, current events, history, film, literature, music, celebrities, etc. but of spelling and grammar (and I’m not talking about CMS style, but of really basic things)…well, I’d certainly have a fat piggy bank…

    As I think you know, I do both proofreading and copy editing, the latter more than the former. But so often (maybe because I think I have a rep for this by now), I end up doing a good bit of the work the c.e. should’ve done. That includes consistency of names, even.

    Also, in the current scheme of things, the distinctions are getting blurred. More and more books come in on disk, and sometimes what we freelancers get is a designed printout that hasn’t really been copy edited, or even supposedly final boards from a packager that often turn out to be full of mistakes.

    Also, when I proofread a reprint, even the final book used as a setting copy may be full of errors and inconsistencies. I recently had to cold read a printout of the p.d. translation of a famous Russian novel that, I quickly figured out, had just been downloaded from the common Internet version. I had two books to compare it to, as well as several other Internet versions, and they were ALL differrrent. So I essentially had to edit it all over again, or perhaps de-edit it from changes others had made.

    BTW, when I was copy editing a very long sf novel with a lot of sf words recently, the editor gave me the electronic file, and I used the spell check function in Word to pull out all the sf words for the style sheet, by plugging them all into a custom dictionary. Saved a lot of time.

  19. Of course there are proofreaders like you, Robert, who do have as much (or more) knowledge than the CEs they’re following behind; the job isn’t supposed to require that, though. The reason you’re getting those messy proofreading jobs is because they’re using you for your copyediting knowledge. I’ve been in that boat; it’s why I won’t take proofreading anymore.

  20. Some of the smaller publishers don’t hire copyeditors for their books, so there may not be a style sheet to give out. If there is one available, the proofreader should always get a copy, though.

  21. I thought about including info on the design memo here, because I do include it as an element of the style sheet. I thought it probably deserved an entry of its own sometime, though.

  22. Heh. Even staid old CMS allows ending a sentence with a preposition:

    The traditional caveat of yesteryear against ending sentences with prepositions is, for most writers, an unnecessary and pedantic restriction….A sentence than ends in a preposition may sound more natural than a sentence carefully constructed to avoid a final preposition….The “rule” prohibiting terminal prepositions was an ill-founded superstition.

    I guess teachers just teach it because it’s what they were taught, and they’ve never learned otherwise. It’s a pretty common belief.

  23. One more call for hyphenation!

    The students I tutor are not being taught to avoid split infinitives and sentences that end with prepositions, but then, my students aren’t being taught what infinitives and prepositions are. The local schools are, however, still insisting that it’s always wrong to use the word “I” in a paper. My students have been led to believe that a run-on is simply a sentence with too many words, and a fragment a sentence with too few.

  24. Upon having one of his sentences clumsily rearranged so that it did not end in a preposition, Winston Churchill is reputed to have responded, “This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put.”

    (The exact phrasing varies between citations.)

  25. …folks asking for grammar and punctuation. Begging even.
    *grabs popcorn*
    Oh me too, I want to know. Where was this class when I was in school? ;)


  26. I talked about author-provided style sheets here.

    and a note that you want the serial comma left right there in place as God intended. And also that you don’t want your semicolons changed; this, however, assumes that you know how to use ’em properly (but I think those of us in the class did and do.)

    It’s times like this I wish I were an anonymous blogger and could let my snark free. :-) I’ve erased my answer five times already.

    You were advised to send along a note implying to your copyeditor that you believe he/she will screw up your prose if not for your exacting directions?

    That is not an important thing to have learned.

  27. One thing I’ve always hated that schools do is that they insist all arguments be stated in terms of absolute fact. (Or they did when I was in school.) No room for “possibly” or “sometimes” or anything else that implies anything other than absolute right or wrong. :-P

  28. Oh, no, I don’t think that is what Ms. Elrod (I don’t know her–just took the seminar from her at FantasyFaire, that’s all, back around 1990) meant at all. She said that she often got her semicolons turned into commas, creating comma splices, and so she told them not to do that to her right up front on her style sheet. She also said that she had to fight to keep the serial comma much of the time, so she mentioned that, too. I think that the “as God intended” is just a jokey Southern way of intensifying your belief that the serial comma is correct, no matter what Chicago Style may say about it in journalism. If leaving it out decreases clarity, after all, then why would we want to “save a space” and leave it out? Doesn’t make sense outside of the context of newspaper column-space. I thought that her advice seemed sound, because it would save all those “STET” markings later on when she had to undo all the substitutions that had been made. Another author mentioned having a rubber stamp made up with “STET” on it. The copyeditors they’d had weren’t doing it right, in their views, and so they were just trying to get on the same page (groan–pun unintended, but still kind of clever.)

    I guess what you’re saying is that it’s best not to send along any style sheet at all. I’ll go read what you said about author-provided style sheets.

    Didn’t mean to sound snarky. Mercury is already out of retrograde. I was doin’ better with the dang thing going backward, I think.

  29. Meanwhile, in college classes, students flunk if they advance assertions for which their evidence is insufficient, and across the humanities it’s considered intellectually dishonest and irresponsible to try to conceal one’s own position.

    One of the things I love about the new SAT is that the essay scoring rubric is pretty close to the grading rubrics common in college composition classes. If high school teachers teach to the test, in this case they actually have no choice but to teach their students how to articulate a relationship between evidence and argument.

  30. I didn’t think you were snarky at all; I’ve just seen this type of advice before, and the only examples I’ve read have been pretty condescending. How would you feel if you were a copyeditor and you got a note from an author advising you not to create run-on sentences? I can’t imagine that any copyeditor would do that on purpose, so the clear implication seems to be that the author thinks the CE wouldn’t know any better if the author didn’t tell them. It’s a pity that Ms. Elrod had a CE experience that led her to believe that was necessary; I really hate hearing things like that.

    Fiction publishers usually prefer serial commas; it’s journalism that’s against them. I’m really surprised that she would have to fight to keep them.

  31. I’ve asked some of the agents I know about this, and about why some of them switch manuscripts into Times. Courier is far easier for me to edit, but I rarely get it.

    Agents do it because they think italic looks better, or because they think Times is easier to read and takes up less space. (I agree that it’s easier to read; it just isn’t easier to find and mark typos in.) The agents I’ve talked to had no idea that I might be expected to spend time underlining italics when I could be spending that time on far more important copyediting tasks. They didn’t realize that I would be expected to copyedit their clients’ work faster because it was in Times rather than in Courier.

    There’s a huge amount of distance between an agent and a copyeditor, and even a lot of editors don’t think of what works best for a copyeditor. hadn’t thought about it before I told her here, for instance, and now she says she’ll submit her manuscripts in Courier. I love to hear that. :-)

  32. Thank you.

    I apologize for not friending you back, btw, but I noted that you blog in French, which I don’t speak. I’m glad you find my blog useful, though.

  33. There’s no problem, I wouldn’t friend a blog I can’t read either. I use the friend list for reading convenience – as long as I can access your posts, I’m happy. :)

  34. Thanks for the commentary. Basically, I guess it boils down to “I’m not THAT out of touch” and underlining to indicate italics is still a good idea. Phew!

  35. As with most things, the process of getting something into print works better if everyone involved knows what they are doing and has confidence that the others they are working with do also. That said, I get irritated when one grammatical sentence morphs into another because whoever is checking things is not listening to the sound. “He brushed the dirt off of his clothes and out of his hair,” is not necessarily improved by being changed to, “He brushed the dirt off his clothes and out of his hair.” If it were, I would have written it that way to begin with.

    Chicago is a plague when set lose in fictional universes.

  36. Hi Deanna,

    I read this when you first posted it, three years ago, and it really stuck with me. A few weeks ago I got my first freelance copyediting assignment, a nonfiction book, and the instructions called for making a style sheet. “Gosh,” I thought, “how do I do that? I remember Deanna posting about it, so I know what it is, but I’m not sure how to get started!”

    I began editing the manuscript document on my laptop while traveling. Since I didn’t have CMS or Web11 handy, I kept a list of things I wanted to look up when I got home (website vs. Web site, re-covering vs. reupholstering, etc.). Tonight, while finishing up the latest round of edits, I suddenly realized that a good chunk of the style sheet is that list of stuff I had to look up! I pasted it into the style sheet document and felt all professional. *grin*

    So thanks very much for the education on what style sheets are and why they’re useful; I’m really glad it’s stuck with me for the past three years.


  37. Every so often, I find myself coming back to your blog to reread old posts. *smiles* Your job sounds so much fun!

    Question: is it acceptable for a writer to make her own style sheet for a manuscript?

    For example, I have a work that has 5 names for one character—she legally changes her name in part of the story, and then there are the nicknames for each name, and there’s one nickname that only one character calls her. I’d think it would be easier for the copyeditor (assuming I ever get published) if I provided the style sheet instead of her having to come up with it herself.

  38. Hi, Carradee. Copyeditors will almost always come up with another style sheet to help them as they go through the manuscript, but it’s also fine for the author to provide one as a reference. In a case like yours, it may help to keep things clear.

    I’m glad you enjoy the blog. I need to get back to blogging again. I’ll have a post on my thoughts about that soon. ;-)

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