Editing with style (sheets)

style image mcbIf you ever get a job as a copyeditor — or have your book manuscript copyedited — you’ll become acquainted with one of the main tools of the trade: a “style sheet,” which The Chicago Manual describes as “an alphabetical list  of words or terms to be capitalized, italicized, hyphenated, spelled, or otherwise treated in any way unique to the manuscript” (16th ed., 2.52). The style sheet is also the place to note how numbers, acronyms and abbreviations, and documentation should be handled, even if it’s simply to note “follow Chicago Manual” or “use MLA style.” Looking at style sheets is enlightening: writers can learn just how much detail their copyeditors are wrangling, even for a light editing job, and editors can pick up tips for organizing their own style sheets by looking at the way other editors handle the task.

Though a copyeditor usually follows a particular style manual, like The Chicago Manual of Style, he or she also creates a unique style sheet for each editing project. These editorial style sheets are useful for keeping track of small editing decisions and for making clear — to the author, to the proofreader, to the publishing house — which editing decisions have been thought through carefully and confirmed as correct so that only the most consistent, polished version of the text goes public.

And such style sheets are useful to the copyeditor during the editing process so that decisions don’t have to be figured out over and over again. Should naive be spelled with or without an umlaut over the i throughout the book? Should numbers be written out as words — and under what conditions? When should terms like president, director, captain — or gothic, progressive, democratic — be capitalized and when should they be set in lowercase? (Perhaps in a book on history, some politicians are progressive in a general sense, but some are also Progressives, part of a specific party.) And so on. The editor notes his or her decisions, based on authorities like the style manual and dictionary, and then just refers back to the style sheet the next time the issue appears in the text.

The art of creating a style sheet is setting it up so that it’s easy and quick to use. It should be detailed enough to be helpful, without being so loaded with basic information that it becomes cumbersome. It would be a waste of time to simply retype everything that the style manual has to say on endnotes, for example. But for unusual citations (references to TV commercials, say, amid more-typical scholarly references to books and journals), a sample endnote in the style sheet could prove helpful.

Some editors also like to organize style sheet information into broad categories (punctuation, numbers, documentation, abbreviations, etc.) rather than in one long alphabetical list. Style sheets for works of fiction often include a list of character names and descriptions, for making sure that “Warren” doesn’t mysteriously become “Werner” later in the book or that Luz’s gray eyes don’t somehow turn brown in the middle of a chapter.

If you’re new to creating style sheets, here are some additional sources of information:

— On An American Editor recently, Amy Schneider posted a discussion on creating a style sheet specifically for a work of fiction.

— Beth Hill has also posted a discussion of style sheets, in “Style Sheets—The Setup and the Benefits,” The Editor’s Blog, July 12, 2011.

— On the Library page of the KOK Edit website, Katharine O’Moore-Klopf offers three sample style sheets:

— The third edition of The Copyeditor’s Handbook by Amy Einsohn (University of California Press, 2011) offers a detailed sample style sheet on pages 47–51, and the discussion of style sheets continues through page 53.

— The 16th edition of The Chicago Manual of Style (University of Chicago Press, 2010) briefly discusses editorial style sheets in section 2.52, showing an excerpt from one in figure 2.3. (The quotation in the first paragraph of this blog post comes from section 2.52 of this edition of this manual.)

Text and graphic, ©2015, Martha Carlson-Bradley

6 thoughts on “Editing with style (sheets)

  1. Excellent post, Martha! Informative, clear, concise, and with a list of references that provide more information. Thanks so much for writing on this topic. I’m going to save this post to my list of website “favorites” to refer to in the future.


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