How to Start a Style Sheet

A style sheet is a record of style choices made as the editor works on a document. They are usually specific to a project or client.

What the bare bones of a style sheet should note

My template or boilerplate style sheet includes

  • dictionary preference and preference for first given spelling option,
  • style guide preference,
  • reading level,
  • British or US punctuation (for commas and quotes), and
  • number treatment.
This style sheet is jotted on the back of an envelope because the job was tiny, at the final stage, and non-repeating.

Now, my boilerplate reflects the typical subject of my work and often includes notes on the treatment of

  • scientific units (symbols or spelled out, with a space or not),
  • acronyms,
  • table heading,
  • trademarked terms,
  • punctuation of number ranges,
  • punctuation of bulleted lists, and
  • hyphenation preferences.

In non-science areas, you might find it useful to specify things like whether or not “street” will be spelled out for addresses, and how to treat the cardinal directions of NESW, or how to refer to names after the first instance (e.g., first or last name). In fiction, I would definitely include the name of every character. As Amy Schneider explains in her book, The University of Chicago Guide to Copyediting Fiction, the fiction editor may also note characters’ key attributes and indicate the manuscript page or chapter in which each character is introduced.

A style sheet is not the same as a style guide.

Style guides can be enormous. A style sheet is project specific and more like crib notes of the larger guide.

My clients often provide a guide of 12 pages or more (sometimes 40 pages!) that outlines

  • punctuation preferences such as British or American,
  • preferred wordings such as “answers will vary,” and
  • preferred alternatives to trademarked terms.

Even the 40-page style guides start with a reference to an even bigger style guides. For example, they will specify whether to defer to the CP or Chicago manuals of style. The rest of the document details concerns that are not covered by those enormous tomes, or instances in which the project’s style deviates from the manual or which option (given in the guide) the project will follow.

Style Sheets are a Memory Aid

These vary from editor to editor. The only “wrong” is not maintaining a style sheet — or, not referring to it!

Editor Katharine O’Moor-Klopf includes page cross-references in her style sheets.

The most important thing about a style sheet is to keep adding to it as you work. Note decisions you make as you go, such as to italicize and capitalize the R in R group, without a hyphen, or that cis and trans will always be italicized, Savana’s name is spelled without an H, and that you will capitalize letters when they are used as letters (see previous example). Then your proofreader won’t have to read your mind, and neither will you when another project from that client lands on your desk after you’re well ensconced in another client’s style guide.

Format Your Style Sheet

To keep your style sheet navigable and manageable, try not to deviate from the preferences given in your dictionary and style guide. Every exception is an opportunity for an oversight. Use headings. And keep details like figure and page references in a separate file.

Read what CMOS16 has to say about style sheets in section 2.55 and in their shop talk.

What’s boilerplate on your style sheet?

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