What they are and why you should use them
Publishers and editors often talk of style guides, and by this they mean a guide book of specific rules for formatting (and sometimes grammatical choices) that they follow for their publications.
There is no universal style guide that gives ONE correct, absolute way to do everything. The two principal style guides in use in the publishing industry are The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) and the Associated Press Style Guide (AP). The CMOS is usually the preferred standard for most fiction and nonfiction books, while the AP guide is preferred for journalism (magazines and newspapers). In general, the CMOS is much more comprehensive and contains information that the AP guide does not.
Some of you may recall the MLA handbook from high school or college as the book to follow for writing your term and research papers. If you write academic papers and papers for publication in academic journals, then you’ll probably be using the APA Style Guide (American Psychological Association), which is the standard for academic institutions.
If you’re a writer of nonacademic books, though, then the CMOS is the style guide you should be using. It’s a very large book (about 1000 pages), and few writers will ever need most of what’s in it. But the same can be said for an unabridged dictionary. You purchase the CMOS (or subscribe to the online version) because it contains just about everything you will ever need to know, no matter what type of book you’re writing, including textbooks. However, each publishing house may refine the rules it uses because even the CMOS often offers more than one way to do things. If you’re self-publishing, then you choose which recommendations to use.
You should also be aware that the CMOS is a dynamic work and that the content and “rules” in it change over time. Be sure you’re using an up-to-date edition.
But the title of this blog is style sheets not style guides. What’s the difference?
Sometimes when writers (or publishers) refer to using a “Style Guide” they really mean a “Style Sheet.” The style sheet is not a comprehensive guide. It’s a list of specific conventions that a writer (or the publisher) has chosen to follow in order to be consistent in content. Lack of consistency in your own work will mark you as an amateur and your writing will be taken less seriously.
Let’s consider a few examples of what might be in a style sheet.
How do you denote a scene break? An asterisk centered on a separate line? Three asterisks, spaced or unspaced? A pound sign or signs?
What about your chapters? Do you indent the first line or not? (It’s common among publishers not to indent the first line—and some may use a large drop cap for certain works—but it’s not a hard rule.) For your chapter numbers, do you use numerals or write the numbers out?
How do you spell OK/Okay? (Both versions are acceptable, but you want to be consistent.)
Do you have certain words and terms that you capitalize that might not be capitalized using “normal” grammar rules? In our novel The Mosaic, Chris Keaton and I have a style sheet to indicate always capitalizing “Mosaic” when it refers to the particular mosaic in the novel because it’s THE mosaic. We also capitalize words like Dwarf, Elf, Witch, Dragon that one normally does not capitalize because we use them as the names of races—the same way one uses Man (as in Mankind) as a proper noun.
A style sheet should include particular spellings of words like “hmm” and “ohhh” (2 or 3 m’s or h’s?) for which there is no agreed on spelling rule.
Do you put parenthetical remarks in parentheses or set them off with dashes? Do you even want to use parentheses at all in the work? If you do use parentheses, you need to use them more than a couple of times.
What about the serial/Oxford comma—use it or not?
Or how about a contraction of “because” that your characters use? Is it cuz or ’cause?
Maybe you have a character that consistently mispronounces a word and you want to ensure it’s spelled the way he pronounces it.
How about possessives of names that end in “s”? Do you add ’s or just the apostrophe? Referring to the men that work for the character Elias, is it “Elias’s men” or “Elias’ men”? The CMOS allows both, but you want to be consistent, and you need to include your choice in your style sheet.
You especially want to ensure that your characters’ names are spelled the same way all the time. I recently read a short story whose main character is Jeffery, but sometimes the author spelled it “Jeffrey.” Perhaps the author didn’t realize he’d done this, in which case he wouldn’t have known to use a style sheet. Still, as writers, we need to be aware of name spellings. Because MS Word will recognize many alternative spellings as correct: Rob/Robb, Mathew/Matthew, Erik/Eric, etc., you must be careful.
I recently edited a fantasy novel that mentioned various types of swords (great-sword, long-sword, short-sword). There are no generally agreed on absolute standards for these. Various dictionaries and references show them as two words, one word, or hyphenated. The author wasn’t consistent, so I decided to hyphenate them all. The same happens with chain mail and plate mail. Most dictionaries use two words for them, but I’ve seen “chainmail” in some fantasy circles and the words hyphenated in some references. He also was not consistent in referring to the individuals from the region he called Forisch. He had “Forischian(s)” in some spots and “Forischman/Forischmen” in others. A style sheet is a must here.
When composing your style sheet, note any names or places you make up and that look similar to other English words. Again, in The Mosaic we had one character named “Sintra,” which looks a lot like “Sinatra” (as in Frank), and which the spell checker would NOT catch if misspelled. In fact, we did miss one occurrence and, fortunately, one beta reader caught it and saved us the embarrassment.
If any of your characters have certain speech habits, include those as well. For example, if English is not the first language of one or more of your characters, then they might not use contractions in their dialogue. (See the article link below for further explanation on when to use and not to use contractions.)
Therefore, you should use a style sheet for just about everything you write. Include anything that deviates from convention or any style choices or spelling decisions (especially when the dictionary indicates acceptable alternatives) that you’ve made along the way to ensure consistency and give a copy to any outside editors.
Every editor is different, and each one will have a different set of conventions. If you plan to use an outside editor for your manuscript, you will definitely want to give that editor a style sheet. If you don’t specify those choices you’ve made and that you don’t want changed, you may find your editor making improper “corrections.” I’ve seen it happen.