Thursday, June 21, 2012

What Goes into a House Style Sheet or Style Guide

You've probably heard of making a story or character "bible": a document (or folder) that contains all your information about your story, from character appearances and ages to backstory details.

(Tip: If you don't have a story "bible", it's a good idea to make one as soon as possible after starting a book. I'm still figuring out the best way to make one for me, so I have a few different types on my computer, just for Aleyi: a "bible" Scrivener project, a Numbers spreadsheet, and a Tiddly Wiki file. Each method has its strengths and weaknesses, so I'll probably continue using all three for different aspects of the story.)

But that's a side topic, right now. Most writers know about making story bibles, though I suspect few of us actually make strong ones.

What about making style sheets? (And I don't mean cascading ones. House style sheets ≠ CSS.)

A publisher's "house style" ensures consistency across its titles. If you self-publish—or if you want to get your story as clean as it can be for submission—you want to have your own personal "house style" set so your stories can be internally consistent, in grammar and formatting.

The style sheet (AKA "style guide") addresses such details as…

  • Which grammar and spelling styles you use (US? UK? Australian? Canadian?)
  • Which grammar handbook do you use? (US default: Chicago Manual of Style, except in specific fields)
  • On what points do you disagree with your handbook, if any? (Create a "writer's punctuation style" list for what disagrees.)
  • Which dictionary do you use? (Common US default: Merriam-Webster, though American Heritage is also popular.)
  • On what points do you disagree with your dictionary, if any? (Compound nouns in particular differ among sources—create a "preferred spellings" list for what disagrees.)
  • Who are your cast? (List them, with brief explanations when necessary; for example, only one person in Destiny's Kiss calls her "Kiss"; others call her "Des" or "Kissy".)
  • What special words are in your text, and what do they mean? (For example, in my Aleyi stories, elfin is an adjective that specifically refers to people.)
  • What foreign words are in your story, what is their language of origin, and what do they mean?
  • What naming conventions are to be followed, if any, and for whom?
  • Is there anything else stylistic or grammatical that should be caught in line editing, copyediting, or proofreading?

Some helpful things to include:

  • What do you use to indicate scene breaks? (What character, if any, with how many returns?)
  • What's your formatting at the beginning of each chapter? (What font, what font size, and how much white space above it?)
  • What's your body text font and font size?
  • Do you have any other formatting details in the story, and if so, what are they?

That list of things to include looks monstrous, doesn't it? but formatting this sheet actually isn't all that hard. You can do it one of two main ways:

  1. In lists
  2. In tables

The main difference is, do you prefer working in a word processor or in a spreadsheet? Personally, I'll use either one. I prefer making them with Numbers, but those don't convert well. If it's a document I'll be sending to others more often than I'll be using it myself, I'll write it up in RTF format.

The trick to formatting a style sheet is to use lots of lists and lots of white space.

So if you make a stylesheet in a word processor, use a lot of bulleted lists, with a bold header indicating what the list is of.

Let me give a peek at two examples (for my own stories, so no client confidences broken):

Text Style Sheet Snapshot:

Table Style Sheet

They're both pretty readable, huh? The spreadsheet version makes it easier to reorganize within individual lists, while it's often easier to rearrange the lists themselves (their order and placement) on the word processing version.

However, though you want things to be simple, you also need to be clear about what your style sheet refers to, so you must begin it properly. Here's a peek at what the start for my Chronicles of Marsdenfel stylesheet looks like:

Notice that the beginning clearly says what world it refers to, what language the story's written in, with the default grammar handbook and dictionary—and notice on that top right. Language morphs over time, so the era of your story can make a difference.

For example, I have plans for stories set during the Crystal Wars. There's one I've worked on a little—because some of those characters in it appear in A Fistful of Earth—but I already know that felves were called something else, then, as were faeries. Jargon differed. (It gets a bit awkward when those centuries-old people talk in A Fistful of Earth, because they're the only ones who understand some of the things they say.)

You don't have to make a style sheet, of course, but I recommend it. It'll make editing and proofreading a lot easier, whether you do it yourself or hire someone.

Do you make style sheets for your work? Do you plan to? Which method do or will you use, word processing or spreadsheet?


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