Style sheets and why you should use one (includes FREE STYLE SHEET TEMPLATE for download)

The benefits of using a style sheet are many. This blog explains what a style sheet is, the advantages of using one, and how to use one effectively.

  • What is a style sheet?
  • Advantages of using a style sheet
  • How to create a style sheet
  • How to use a style sheet
  • What is the difference between a style sheet and house style
  • Download a FREE style sheet template and access other templates

People judge us on our mistakes. As the way we present our writing is part of our brand/social standing, eliminating errors and inconsistencies in our writing is very important. Yes, a couple of errors can be forgiven but too many are distracting and undermine our messaging, narratives, pitches, etc.  A style guide is a very simple tool that can massively help reduce inconsistency and increase a professional output, as well as create efficiencies in the writing and editing process.

What is a style sheet?

A style sheet is a highly useful tool for helping anyone who writes (students, bloggers, novelists, managers, etc) to be consistent in their writing. Essentially, it is a list of preferences about elements in the document (how spellings, paragraphs, headings quotes, references, speech, thoughts, numbers and measurements, etc should appear). The writer records their preferences as they write, thereby creating a reference sheet for themselves and anyone that works with them on their writing. Editors highly recommend that writers use one.

The great thing is that anyone can create a style sheet.  You simply note down your decisions in the format of a list with categories. The categories can be adapted and increased (see my template for an idea). Whilst rules and conventions exist, you can apply your own style as long as you are consistent. A style guide will help you apply that consistency which means that your reader will less likely be distracted by inconsistencies (which to them look like errors). The advantages are numerous.

Advantages of using a style sheet

It’s a central place to note decisions and standardise choices that you, other contributors, content writers, editors, proofreaders – basically anyone who contributes to the writing and editing of your text – can add to.

  • It’s a central place to note decisions and standardise choices that you, other contributors, content writers, editors, proofreaders – basically anyone who contributes to the writing and editing of your text – can add to.
  • Spelling choices: these notes will include things like your decision on how to spell certain words like ‘wellbeing’ as opposed to ‘well-being’.
  • Encourages you to make decisions on how to express numbers (five or 5) and measurements like the time (three o’clock, 3.00pm, 15.00, 15h00).
  • Guides formatting. For example, you might want to use justified text throughout a brochure but use unjustified text for quotes.
  • A memory aid: we all forget. If you are writing over a long period of time, or you get interrupted frequently, perhaps you write for different clients or switch between genres, you may get muddled. Was the name of a character Ann Gardner, Anne Garner, Annie Gardiner, Anna Gardener? Your style sheet, if you noted down your decision early on, will help you.
  • Time-saver: it reduces time wasted because of indecision. And even if you forget to look at your style sheet most of the time and you write inconsistently (you write percentages and %) your note on the style sheet allows your editor or proofreader to know what you intended and allows them to make the correction instead of sending you a query. Saving the time of your editor and proofreader increases efficiency for the editing process as a whole.
  • Future work: the style sheet is useful for when you update your text for future connected work e.g., serialisation of your book, future editions and updates.
  • If you hire different content writers or a variety of contributors, a style sheet will guide the writers and, therefore, reduce inconsistency.
  • Anyone can make one: you can build a style sheet according to your needs and preferences. Or you can ask your copyeditor or proofreader to do this for you (many will create one as part of their service to you but some offer it as an add-on paid for service).

How to create a style sheet

Create your style sheets according to your needs. For example, you might need two style sheets: one for blogs and one for your business brochures.

You can download the template I have added to this blog. Feel free to adapt it to your needs. I have also listed a few other places where you can download free templates that might work better for you. These are all in MS Word but use Excel or other programs if that’s your preference. Add what you deem is important but there are some essential categories:

  • Preferred dictionaries
  • Spelling preferences
  • Punctuation style
  • How numbers should be presented
  • Hyphenation
  • Capitalizations

In fiction, there are additional considerations such as point of views, places, tense choice, dialogue and how thought and speech are conveyed, character names, histories, etc.

Spellings have variations so it’s your decision (in British English, you can choose between organisation or organization). Remember, you can follow the rules and conventions out there but, especially if you are writing a book (fiction), poems or using words that have no fixed spellings in English, it’s your book and therefore your choice – but this can only work if you are consistent (so note it down on the style sheet).

How to use a style sheet

Before writing, it’s likely that you will have created a plan or structure of some sort. Use this to help you begin listing your preferences or begin adapting and adding to a style sheet template. As you start writing, list your preferences (or do this after you have written your draft if stopping to note choices is disruptive to your writing process). The next time you write, keep it nearby (perhaps a hardcopy by your keyboard or notebook, or maybe on your desktop as a split-screen) and refer to it whenever you want to add more information or to double-check something. Over time, the style sheet will grow but it should remain a comprehensive, quick reference tool containing valuable information that is great for you and anyone who works on your texts. Tidy it up and send to your editors and proofreader/other contributors/ghostwriters/content writers – whoever works with you on the production of your writing. They can add details too (noted with highlights to make you aware) and help keep the document useful and accurate.

How does a style sheet differ from house style?

House style is a guide that aims to offer clarity and assurance to the reader by reducing inconsistency in writing, grammar, appearance, etc and can give the document a consistent voice and identity (i.e., aid with branding). It can include all the categories mentioned above and more, as well as serve as a writing guide (it can be quite a detailed document). A house style is organisation-specific. For example, publishers and companies have their own house styles that are bespoke to their brand and requirements (Elle Décor’s house style will be quite different to The Economist’s). As house styles offer general guidance, style sheets are still useful for specific projects being undertaken and can list preferences that a writer may feel are needed and appropriate. Style sheets may even contradict the house style (explanations will be required when doing so). For instance, if semi-colon is not permitted in a house style, a style sheet may suggest its use because it is practical and creates a tidier appearance.

If you need a house style guide created for you, you can approach copyeditors or writers for a quote. It involves discussion, research and judgement. It’s possible you will need a separate guide for online content, as making websites readable and visual involves different requirements to print publications.

Download a FREE style sheet template and access other templates

Have a look at the template I’ve made to get you started or to create your own. You can go even simpler or more detailed. Adapt your sheet as you work through your written piece (get in touch if you need help or have any questions).

  1. Here’s a template I use and adapt for clients: NES Style Sheet Template. https://nazneeneditorial57265146.files.wordpress.com/2021/09/nes-style-sheet-template.docx
  2. Erin Brenner offers a basic template you may prefer to start off with https://www.righttouchediting.com/editor-resources/.
  3. Stacey Ennis offers a sample based on the Chicago Manual of Style (scroll down for the PDF) https://stacyennis.com/editorseye/
  4. Louise Harnby offers specific advice and a sample for fiction writing https://www.louiseharnbyproofreader.com/blog/whats-a-style-sheet-and-how-do-i-create-one-help-for-indie-authors

Conclusion

Style sheets are very useful writing tools. They are easy to create, adaptable and useful for colleagues who work with you on your writing. They make writing styles consistent, enable professional-looking outputs, can save time, work as a memory aid and help you when it comes to creating connected work or updates. Your style sheet may grow but aim to keep it concise for it to be user-friendly.


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