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Editing with style... sheets

I’ve recently discovered the beauty and utility of style sheets. For every editing project that I work on, I usually take notes on a giant sticky note on my desk: I note down words that are commonly misspelled throughout the text, questions or suggestions for the author that I want to return to, and decisions I’ve made that I need to explain to the author.


One of my instructors in the Professional Sequence in Editing at the University of California, Berkeley pointed out that these sticky notes are basic versions of style sheets.


So, what is a style sheet? What’s the difference between a style sheet and a style guide? How can copyeditors, authors, and other language professionals use style sheets? And… how can you make your own style sheet?


Two hands next to a pile of papers. One hand is grasping a pen and a watch.
You, wasting time because you don't have a style sheet.

Style sheet versus style guide

I have touched upon style guides elsewhere (see “Your company needs a style guide” blog post), but style guides and style sheets are different, and they complement each other. Together, a style guide and a style sheet provide you with all the information you need for formatting, spelling, and styling your text (or texts) consistently.


A style sheet consists of editorial decisions; it can also include a glossary of terms and a timeline. The point of a style sheet is to maintain consistency—throughout the text in question, but also across a series of publications, for example, or throughout an organization’s communications.


Generally, when copyeditors look at a text, they will refer to various style guides to make decisions about capitalization, spelling, grammar, and punctuation, but sometimes (often!) there are many different possibilities and the copyeditor must make a decision about how to move forward. This is where the style sheet comes in handy: it explains the decisions that the copyeditor made to create a consistent text.


A publishing company can have a style guide and recommend the use of other style guides such as the Chicago Manual of Style, but the copyeditor will inevitably still need to make some decisions when editing the text. The company’s style guide and the Chicago Manual of Style—although comprehensive—don’t have all the answers.


As Hart’s Rules (p. 37) says...

No house style [guide], however detailed, will cater for all the editorial or design decisions needed to set a publication in type […] the copy-editor needs to record particular decisions on editorial style for every book, sometimes supplementing the house-style guidelines, sometimes preparing a completely new set of ‘rules’ that govern the text.

The main difference, then, is that a style guide exists or is created before the copyeditor starts working on a text and a style sheet is created while the copyeditor is working. Some of the content may overlap, but the functions of the style guide and the style sheet are different.


A style sheet is also much shorter than a style guide. At over one thousand pages, the Chicago Manual of Style isn’t the most accessible resource for most people. Copyeditors should certainly be familiar with a few style guides, but the style sheet that language professionals create should be easy to refer to—also for people less familiar with the language industry.


Style sheets should not be exhaustive and should not detail every little thing in language; they should detail stylistic decisions relevant to the text at hand and provide information to help other people writing or working with the same text to maintain consistency.


As an example, let’s return to Your company needs a style guide. If a company has a company-wide style guide, all of its communications should follow the guidelines set out in that guide. However, certain types of texts—like a year-end report—may need to use different terms and may need additional clarifications about how to stylize its text.


As Grammar Girl says, “If your company creates many different kinds of documents or works with various clients and all of these documents and clients require different treatment, create a style sheet for each kind of document.” In that way, you can kind of think of the style sheet as an appendix to the company style guide to provide information about how to style year-end reports specifically.


A style sheet for company projects is helpful to coordinate the writing styles of multiple people who might work on a project together and to maintain consistency with each year-end report (it would be very annoying to have information organized differently each year!).


What’s in a style sheet?

At its core, a style sheet should include any information that a copyeditor had to look up while working on a text: “‘Anything you had to look up’ is a great place to start when thinking about what to put in a style sheet. If you have to reach for a reference book, others will too. So, save everyone the trouble and put in your style sheet.”


According to Hart’s Rules (p. 38), the style sheet should be organized under clear, general headings, and the copyeditor “should record high-level decisions, subordinate decisions, and individual examples.” For example, under numbers, the copyeditor can specify that numbers through one hundred should be spelled out, except for monetary values, and provide an example: thirty-five, but $500.


Here are some of the other basics that should be covered in a style sheet:

  • Which resources are being used (e.g., Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition and Merriam-Webster, 11th edition)

  • Punctuation preferences or guidelines (e.g., whether to use the serial comma or which dashes to use for certain uses)

  • General spelling guidelines, as well as a list of important or special words (e.g., foreign words, theoretical or conceptual words, etc.)

  • Specific style guidelines (e.g., how and when to use italics or capitalization)

  • Treatment of numbers (e.g., when to use numerals)


How can other language professionals use style sheets?

A style sheet can be useful to more than just copyeditors. Style sheets can also be useful in translation: translators also make decisions about which words to use in which contexts, which spellings to use, and how to stylize certain words (for example, whether to italicize an English word used in a Dutch text).


Style sheets are particularly efficient in collaborations with multiple language professionals; they can be used to communicate with colleagues. Style sheets can limit the number of queries sent back and forth between an author, translator, and copyeditor by providing more guidelines and information.


One of the things that style sheets delineate is the amount of intervention needed: does the client want a light edit? A creative translation? A complete overhaul of the text? This can be stated outright—e.g., “The client prefers a light edit; only check for spelling and grammar errors”—but it is also evident through the type of information included in the style sheet. If only information about spelling and grammar are included, then it’s likely that the client is happy with the stylization and formatting of the text as is, for example.


Style sheets are also useful for typesetters and designers; again, if a hyphen that should be an en dash has been forgotten—or has accidentally been changed by another party during the editorial process—the typesetter can quickly refer to the style sheet and make the correction.


Style sheets are even useful for in-house project managers, to reference if a new edition of the book is to be published, for instance (Hart’s Rules, p. 38).


How to set up your own style sheet

You can find style sheet templates online (find simple examples here and here, although I would advise against using passive aggression like the last line of the latter style sheet, and more extensive samples here), or you can use my sample below. Although this template isn’t suited for every language professional or every type of text, it’s easy to adapt a style sheet template to your needs while you’re editing—all you have to do is start entering in all the information that you research while editing.


I have two template style sheets: one for American English and one for British English. Because I tend to copyedit academic texts, I can usually include similar information in my style sheets and I don’t usually need to change the formatting of my templates too much; however, if I’m editing a volume that’s part of a series, or if I’m editing a journal article, there’s likely more specific style information available for that series or for that journal, so I might be able to exclude some of the information I’d normally include since it’s likely outlined in the series style guide.


Style sheet template

This is a sample of my American English style sheet. I use this template when copyediting texts that need to be conformed to American English, and I add sections and words relevant to that specific text. At the end of a style sheet like this, I’ll also include a glossary of terms and examples of how to format citations.


US English Style Sheet Template


References

  • For grammar and style generally, check Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition

  • For spelling generally, check Merriam-Webster, 11th edition


Punctuation

  • Periods and commas generally go inside of quotation marks; colons and semicolons follow closing quotation marks

  • Use double quotations marks ("); use single quotation marks (') for quotations within quotations

  • Long quotations should be blocked and indented, and shouldn’t use quotation marks

  • Translate any foreign quotation marks into the double quotation marks

  • Place ellipses within square brackets when text has been omitted (e.g., “the guard […] left the premises”)

  • Use series/Oxford comma (e.g., celery, apples, and bananas)

  • Use em dash (—) for interruptions

  • Hyphenate compound modifiers (e.g., “a tenth-century manuscript”); except when one of the modifiers is an adverb ending in -ly (e.g., “a beautifully decorated book”)

  • Generally, use a comma before “which” (nonrestrictive), but not before “that” (restrictive)


General spelling

  • Use -ize forms of verbs, instead of ­-ise (e.g. politicize, not politicise)

  • Use -or endings, instead of -our (e.g. endeavor, not endeavour)

  • Use single-syllable past participles of verbs (e.g. traveled, not travelled)

  • Use s’s for possessives ending with s (e.g. Gates’s), unless plural (e.g. United States’ or Williamses’)

  • Use English place names when possible (e.g., The Hague instead of Den Haag); otherwise, use native form


Italics

  • Use italics for foreign words included in the main text (i.e., not quoted); include translation in single quotation marks and parentheses (e.g. slaapkamer (“bedroom”))

  • Use italics for titles of books, journals, and artworks; titles of articles or chapters within books should be in single quotations


Numbers

  • Spell out all numbers one through one hundred; except to avoid a cluster of spelled-out numbers (e.g. ten, but 10 hours and 43 minutes)

  • Large, round numbers may also be spelled out (e.g. three hundred, but 3,785); except for monetary amounts, which use numerals or a mix (e.g. $350, but $35 million)

Dates

  • Month-day-year format (e.g. November 3, 2012)

  • All mentions of year dates use the full number (e.g. 1991, not ’91)

Measurements

  • Spell out measurement units (e.g. feet instead of ft.)

  • Use comma for numbers with four or more digits, placing each comma three places from the right (e.g. 4,000 or 15,000,000)

Benefits of style sheets

  • Helps the copyeditor remember all the relevant changes, spellings, etc. for the entirety of the text.

  • Reduces the number of queries or back-and-forth between the copyeditor and the client, and between multiple language professionals involved. This helps to keep the project moving along at a nice pace instead of getting bogged down.

  • Clarifies decisions for the proofreader, typesetter, author, etc., so they know why certain changes have been made. This can help inform their decisions to keep or reject certain changes.

  • Saves others involved in the project from having to reach for style guides and having to muck through the nuances of grammar.

  • Informs author or proofreader of copyeditor’s decisions, so they can fix any potential mishaps. If the copyeditor specifies the spelling archaeology instead of archeology, for example, the author or proofreader knows that the one instance of archeology on page 48 is a mistake and needs to be fixed. Copyeditors make mistakes, too, sometimes. 🙂

Curious about style sheets? Or have more questions? I’d love to hear from you! If you want to stay tuned for my next blog post, subscribe to my newsletter.