What Is a Style Sheet?

If you have started looking for copyediting services for your book, you have likely come across the term style sheet. What is a style sheet exactly, and why do you need one for your book?



A rule book for your book

A style sheet is like a mini style guide that is personalized for your book, recording your choices about everything from commas to spelling. In other words, it’s a rule book for your book. 

Why do you need a style sheet when dictionaries and guides like the Chicago Manual of Style are supposed to cover all of the rules? Well, here’s a little editing secret: these authorities often present multiple correct choices, and sometimes they don’t provide any guidance at all on common issues, especially for fiction.

A style sheet, therefore, is a way to document the choices you have made for your book. Having a style sheet will ensure that your book is internally consistent – that you use the same spelling and grammar and style rules throughout the book – and that everyone who works on the book (you, the copyeditor, the proofreader, the designer, etc.) is on the same page.


Elements of a style sheet

Let’s take a look at an example of a style sheet and break down the parts. For reference, here is the style sheet I created for Carrie D. Miller’s novel Copper Pennies. 

Style sheets are as individual as editors, but most style sheets will include a list of reference works, a list of style and usage choices, and a list of terms. Let’s examine them one by one.

This section should list the sources the copyeditor used to guide the editing. For most fiction and general-interest nonfiction in American English, the Chicago Manual of Style and Merriam-Webster dictionary are the standard references. For British English, New Hart’s Rules and the Oxford dictionary are the most common standards.

I also include any sources I use to check spellings for slang words or historical terms that aren’t in the dictionary. (For more about how to use sources like Google’s Ngram, see my post on how to avoid anachronisms.)

This section records all of the author’s preferences for common aspects of grammar, usage, and style – any element of the book that doesn’t involve a specific word or term. When I begin a copyedit, I make a note of the choices an author has already made and record them in this section. If they use multiple styles throughout the book, or if their usage differs from the recommendation of Chicago, I discuss the choice with them to clarify what they want. (There are often valid reasons for not following the guidance of Chicago, especially for fiction.)

Many copyeditors will include character names as part of the term list. I prefer to break them out into a separate section for easy reference as I edit. I also list any small details I come across as I read the manuscript the first time, which helps me catch tiny slips like a character who is left-handed in one scene and then right-handed in another.

Tracking when events happen in a novel can help catch many inconsistencies and oversights. Sometimes that’s a minor matter, like a day of the week that is wrong. But sometimes the timeline reveals a bigger problem, like a loose thread from an earlier draft that hasn’t been snipped or a logical impossibility in the time scheme of the novel. The timeline also provides a handy summary of the novel, which an author can use as the basis of a synopsis.

The term list has two basic functions. First, it provides a list of proper names that have been checked for correctness. If a term is listed in this section, the author and proofreader know that it has been verified. 

Second, it lists the preferred spelling for any word that has multiple correct spellings. There are a surprising number of them in English! Will a reader notice if a writer uses “OK” in one scene and “okay” in another? Perhaps not, but consistency is one of the hallmarks of a professionally produced book, and achieving that mark is one of the reasons you are hiring a copyeditor in the first place. 

You will notice that the term list for Copper Pennies also includes non-standard spellings that help to set the tone for the novel, such as Carrie Miller’s choice to use “magick” for “magic” and to capitalize terms like “Shade.”

I also include any words that I look up in Merriam-Webster to check the spelling or hyphenation. Including these on the style sheet will show the author they have been checked and will save time for the proofreader.


A standard for high-quality editing

When you are vetting possible editors for your book, look for professionals who include style sheets as part of their work. A copyeditor who doesn’t produce a style sheet for your book may be trying to cut corners or may not be well-versed in editing standards. 

Authors and copyeditors have the same goal: to produce a clean, readable book that is a showcase for an author’s ideas and stories. A style sheet is one of the keys to reaching that goal.