Style Sheets: An Editorial Tool

24 Mar

by Vanessa Di Gregorio

When I talk to other writers, I sometimes feel embarrassed; they seem to know EVERY little detail about their story, right down to what colour shoes a secondary character is wearing. And me? Well, I keep forgetting what’s-his-name from the first 3 Chapters, and what his relation is to everything and everyone.

But my MS is still a WIP – I haven’t finished writing it yet. I’ve even recently added a whole other layer to the story. So I shouldn’t be getting down that I don’t know every little detail inside and out yet. My MS is full of different cultures, political intricacies, and a bit of magic – which means I do a whole lot of world-building.

When you start writing a novel, your mind is spilling with ideas. And as you write, you’re giving everyone and everything characteristics, from people to places to things. And depending on what type of novel you’re writing, you’re probably world-building to some extent.  So how do you remember what that secondary character’s name is? Was it Tera? Or was it Tara? Do your characters have particular greetings or sayings? What do you do with all that information, especially when you’re still writing a first draft?

While taking my Fiction Editing class, I was introduced to a tool that many editors use: the style sheet. Editors and agents go through your manuscripts with a fine-tooth comb, looking for anything and everything that doesn’t quite work (or isn’t grammatically sound). They also check for continuity issues, which can be pretty major in a manuscript. So, in order to help further polish your writing (and to help you hone editorial skills, in case any of you are aspiring editors), here’s what you do!

Keep a list of character names, city names, hyphenated vs. non-hyphenated terms, dates and times, and any details you might have researched. Style sheets are also great for different spellings you might be using.

The most useful aspect of a style sheet is how everything is kept alphabetically. Style sheets are often used to document all kinds of decisions, such as:

  • How a person’s name should be spelled – do they use a full name or nickname? Do they go by an alias? Does a specific character use a pet name for that character?
  • Abbreviations and acronyms for terms, names, countries, etc – is it U.S., U.S.A., America, the United States? A.M. and P.M. or a.m. and p.m.? Be consistent.
  • The preferred spelling of words (eg. zeros or zeroes?)
  • Whether you spell out dates (ie. 1988) or write it out (nineteen eighty eight).
  • Whether thoughts are italicized or in single quotation marks
  • Punctuation – serial commas, or no serial commas?

As a writer, though, use a style sheet for things you would find most useful. Keep a list of things that you would want to know when writing/revising.

Things I like using a style sheet for:

  • Remembering character names and physical descriptions
  • Keeping track of names for different places, such as “The Outlands” and “The Great Rock”
  • Cultural jargon and slang, such as the Ane’an goodbye: “May the moon light your path”
  • Political alliances

You get the idea. It’s basically a handy alphabetical list with all the little details from your MS. Any characters, places, or cultural terms starting with the letter “a” would go under a header for “A”. The same thing goes for every other letter – that way, even if you print it out to keep beside your keyboard (or wherever you want), you can find things easily.

So what do you think? Do you already create lists with all the little details from your MS? Do you think this would be a useful tool as a writer? Or do you see it more as an editorial tool? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!


Vanessa is a Sales Assistant at Kate Walker & Co., a book and gift sales agency located in Toronto. She also has a book publishing certificate under her belt. Currently, Vanessa is working on RIFT, a YA fantasy novel, and a Children’s non-fiction series. She also blogs about all things geeky at Something Geeky.


17 Responses to “Style Sheets: An Editorial Tool”

  1. priscillashay March 24, 2011 at 1:14 AM #

    I usually have a second document for stuff like that because I’m horrible and tend to forget secondary characters too. But, then I start thinking if I forgot about them they’re not important. So I go back and try to fix it…which leads to said document.

    It’s a viscous cycle really. >_<

    • Vanessa Di Gregorio March 24, 2011 at 8:54 PM #

      Yeah, I’ve worried about that too. But I figure I shouldn’t worry about cutting those minor characters until I’ve finished a first draft – because sometimes characters can just grow without you meaning for it to happen.

  2. Alli March 24, 2011 at 2:35 AM #

    I definitely have a style sheet for my ms’s. My novels usually consist of an historical story that ties in with a present day and if I don’t keep those worlds separate, then it becomes one big mess. Luckily the Virgo in me adores lists! Thanks for the post!

    • Vanessa Di Gregorio March 24, 2011 at 8:57 PM #

      Glad you enjoyed the post Alli!

      I think style sheets are SO useful! I have an adult historical WIP on the backburner, and I had to keep a lot of historical facts, dates, and details somewhere I could easily look them up again.

      (And I absolutely adore lists as well! :D)

  3. Jamie Evans March 24, 2011 at 8:56 AM #

    I already do this, but didn’t realise it was a formal process with a name! Nice to see it in black and white though, and good to know I’m instinctively doing the right thing. It gives me hope!

    • Vanessa Di Gregorio March 24, 2011 at 9:00 PM #

      It makes me happy knowing that people are instinctively doing it! 😀 Since it’s more of an editorial tool than a writing tool, I thought it might not be something people do, but it just makes sense to do it! So I’m glad you’re doing it!

  4. Rowenna March 24, 2011 at 9:03 AM #

    This is a good idea–I have so many tertiary characters who are never really fully fleshed out but hang out at the periphery of the story–and I want to keep them all straight even if the reader never really needs to, because of course my MC knows all of them 🙂 Great idea!

    • Vanessa Di Gregorio March 24, 2011 at 9:06 PM #

      I find it especially useful since I’m not able to write every single day – so every now and then I’ll forget about characters. Plus, my mind is always coming up with new story and character ideas, so I can find myself wracking my brain after a while. It just makes it so much easier!

      I’m glad that I’m not the only forgetful writer, and that style sheets can be useful for others as well! 😀

  5. lbdiamond March 24, 2011 at 9:49 AM #

    This is a great tool! Thanks for sharing how it works…I hadn’t come across it yet, but it makes total sense to have one. 😉

    • Vanessa Di Gregorio March 24, 2011 at 9:09 PM #

      I’m glad that this is helpful! It certainly is for me! :p

  6. Savannah J. Foley March 24, 2011 at 10:28 AM #

    Told you I was excited for this post! I completely forgot about stylesheets; will totally be utilizing when I’m editing the book.

    • Vanessa Di Gregorio March 24, 2011 at 9:13 PM #

      Yay! 😀 That’s really all I wanted – for it to be a useful tool while writing/editing!

  7. Marina March 24, 2011 at 11:34 AM #

    This is a great idea because I’m one of the people who always forgets the little details. I sometimes even forget details about the main character, which is shameful. I think a style sheet would be very useful. Thank you.

    • Vanessa Di Gregorio March 24, 2011 at 9:14 PM #

      My husband complains about my horrid memory all the time. I forget things on a daily basis (heck, probably even on an hourly basis). So it’s such a vital tool for me when I write!

      And you’re very welcome Marina! It makes me happy knowing that other writers will find it useful!

  8. brandimziegler March 24, 2011 at 2:47 PM #

    I write things down but not in a structured list like what you’re describing. My notes can be found in the mountains of notebooks, receipts, napkins, and other pieces of scrap I leave on the extra desk in my office and/or in my purse. I should organize! This sounds like a neat idea and something I could do over a weekend with all my notes. Thanks for sharing and good luck finishing RIFT 🙂

    • Vanessa Di Gregorio March 24, 2011 at 9:23 PM #

      I used to do the same thing – leave little notes ALL over the place! But I’ve found it to be much easier to keep them all in one place – and I print out a copy to keep on hand (so that I don’t have to minimize anything in order to look at the list).

      And thank you! 😀 I’m actually really excited with where RIFT is heading!

  9. Liz Hellebuyck March 24, 2011 at 10:12 PM #

    I’ve done this simply to keep track of the character’s names and basic relation to the mcs. I didn’t know there was a name for it, but now I am thinking I may use it for more.

    Also, your story sounds really cool. Politics and magic? Can’t wait to read it!

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