Your research into editing may have turned up references to something called a style sheet. This 2-minute read will tell you all you need to know about this handy document.
Picture this. You've been working on your manuscript for two years and you've just taken a six-week break from writing to deal with a busy time at work. You finally get back to your favourite writing spot and you're excited to get started with the next chapter. Words come pouring out as you type but – unbeknownst to you – Clara has now become Carla, focussed has become focused, Highbury has become Highsted, the North Tower is now the north tower, and the apothecary is a pharmacist.
Whether you're writing an early chapter book for 5-7 year olds or a YA fantasy saga which stretches to 100,000 words, consistency is vital. Readers will pick up on changes and errors in spelling, characterisation, settings, timelines, punctuation and much, much more.
A style sheet is the tool to record these stylistic preferences and choices, and referring back to the style sheet throughout the writing process will remind you of these preferences and choices over long periods of time.
What will a style sheet include?
Formatting and layout
Here you will record decisions you make regarding font size, typeface, use of bold, italics and underlining, section breaks, chapter headings and indentations.
This will include choices to do with dialect (e.g. British or American English), spelling preferences (e.g. -ise or -ize endings, focussed or focused, etc.), abbreviations and acronyms, use of numbers (e.g. written as words or numerals), and time and date formats.
Punctuation and capitalisation
Inconsistencies in punctuation and capitalisation can be particularly jarring for many readers, so remembering whether you are using an Oxford comma or single or double quotation marks, or when you are using hyphens, en dashes and em dashes, is very important.
This relates to both character names and characterisation. If you make reference to eye or hair colour, height, physical features, temperament, etc., make sure you record it in the style sheet. You don't want an older, curmudgeonly, portly, grey haired man accidentally being described nine chapters later as middle aged, pleasant mannered, slim and brown haired.
The same is vital with setting, both in terms of place names and in descriptions of those places. Are place names capitalised, hyphenated, spelled correctly, described consistently? This becomes even more complex in fantasy stories with whole worlds being built and described, possibly across several books in a series. Even seasons and climates are essential to record and use consistently.
Timeline of events / major plot points
A timeline is a very helpful addition to your style sheet, making sure characters haven't been pregnant for 11 months, that timelines of school or university attendance match up, or that characters don't appear after they've been killed off – unless that is an intentional twist, of course!
Your style sheet is a living document that you can add to as your novel unfolds. If you decide to hire an editor once your novel is complete, send the style sheet along with the manuscript so the editor can look for consistency based on these preferences. If you haven't completed a style sheet yourself, your editor will create one for you as part of the editing service.
For such a simple document, its importance really can't be overstated.