Melanie Spiller & Coloratura Consulting
A Tonic for Ramshackle Wordsmiths
Copyright Melanie Spiller 2011. Do not copy without permission.
Style sheets provide information about standards of language or template use. You apply these standards to your writing and an editor enforces them in order to create uniformity within a single document and across a number of documents from one publisher. You can save your editor a lot of bother and your readers a lot of confusion if you give a style sheet a quick read before you begin.
There are large global style sheets, like the Chicago Manual of Style, the AP Stylebook and Libel Manual, MLA (an academic standard), and MSTP (Microsoft’s styles for writing about their products). These are pretty hefty to just read through; give them a glance so you know how to use them, hope that your editor took the time to read them thoroughly, and then look at the smaller one for the specific project you’re working on. For clarity, I’ll call this project-level style sheet the House Style Sheet.
You need to know whether your project adheres to the Chicago or the AP style, just so you can make some assumptions about em-dashes and capitalization. But each publishing entity makes decisions regarding the uniformity of their own publications and may use a combination of these global styles. They’ll announce these decisions in their House Style Sheet.
A good House Style sheet has several basic listings: the term, the source for the decision (Chicago, AP, MSTP, Webster, an individual, etc.), a comment that explains usage (noun versus verb forms, brief definitions, etc.), the document in which the first occurrence appeared, the date of the decision, and the person entering the term. Usually, the format is a table, and the document is either e-mailed to all relevant parties (you should ask for one with your template and contract) or is made available via the Internet.
Once you’ve looked for basic information, like what numbers to spell out and whether to place a comma before the “and” in a series, you should expect to make decisions and additions as you write. For instance, you may decide (and verify on the manufacturer’s site or their style sheet) that you should abbreviate the name of the product after the first usage. I might call my now infamous Purple People Plotter a PPP, for instance. I’d place PPP in the Term column, identify my source as the manufacturer’s site, spell it out in the Comments column, and date and sign the deal. Then, on the Purple People Plotter line, I’d be sure to include that PPP is okay after the first usage.
Many times, you may wonder whether an acronym is a common term or not. You can resolve the dilemma by spelling it out once, putting the acronym in parenthesis immediately following, and then referring solely to the acronym henceforth. Put this information in the style sheet, and the next author who encounters the term won’t have to do the research. MSTP lists some acceptable acronyms NOT to spell out, but you might work for publishers who use other standards, so it’s good to have the failsafe of building your own for each project or publisher.
It’s really important to put proper spelling and capitalization in a style sheet. Otherwise, the editor will take whatever spelling and capitalization came first in the document and standardize on that. Your editor puts the decision in a style sheet, and you might be stuck with Purple people Plotters or PurplePeople Plotters forever.
The style sheet might also mention elements of template use, like whether italics and bold are acceptable and when--or whether--you can apply “Normal” to any lines of text or any blank lines. Some publishers put template use in a separate document to prevent an unwieldy document, but a publisher who encourages (or can accommodate) a wide array of writing styles might use one document to illustrate both aspects of style (language and template use).
In many cases, you’ll have your own sense of what should be spelled out or how a bulleted item should look. If you put your decision in a style sheet, you won’t find editors changing it to suit themselves, or if they do, it will be a professional decision rather than a matter of taste.