Basics of writingNovel writing

Style sheets revisited: how to avoid editing nightmares

From Rick:

I apologize for not posting a blog last week (and for being late this week). Things got a little crazy time-wise, and they will continue to be so for the next couple of months at least. I have no lack of topics to write about, and new ones (like this one) keep popping up. The problem is finding time to write about them.

A couple of years back (which seems more like a just a few months ago), I did a post on style guides and style sheets. Here’s the link to that article. You might want to read first so you know what I’m talking about in this post.


For this post, I will use the definition of style sheet that refers to the specific spelling and formatting choices you made for your book (as opposed to a general style sheet an editor might use for publications in general). This list includes the spellings of your characters’ names (for example, Micheal, Johnathan, Jeffery vs. the more common Michael, Jonathan, Jeffrey).

Here’s why you need to include ALL names in your style sheet, no matter how common they are—especially when using an outside editor. I sometimes find an author will use an uncommon first or last name spelling (deliberately, accidentally, or in ignorance), and when I encounter one of these, I have to question it because I’m very aware of many of the name variations out there: Eric, Erick, Erike, Ericke, Aric. (And I’m sure there are more I’m not aware of.) Or the author may use Johnsen instead of Johnson. I don’t have a problem with such variants of common spellings. I just want to be sure the author is aware that he or she is using a less common spelling and intended to do so.

My reason for revisiting this topic is that I’ve just completed editing the third novel in the fantasy series I mentioned in the first article. From an editor’s perspective, this novel ended up being a bit of a nightmare to edit.

Now, please understand that this is not a comment on the novel itself or the writing. It’s a very good novel, the writing is good, and the author knows what he’s doing. In fact, the novel as a whole had very few errors in it, and probably 95% or more of those were merely minor slips or simple typographical errors.

What made it a challenge were the length (150,000 words) and the fantasy aspects, which gave it dozens of made-up character names and place names and terms. To put the length into perspective, the third Harry Potter Book (The Prisoner of Azakaban) was 107,000 words, and the sixth (The Half-Blood Prince) was 169,000 words. Therefore, you might expect that with so many words in play author is going to occasionally misspell some of his created names. This is why a style sheet is essential.

Fantasy and sci-fi novels are often the most challenging to edit because of all the new names and terms added as part of the world building. In addition, in fantasy novels, terms for armor and weaponry may come into play. Many times the author will use existing terminology, but sometimes he will need to make up new ones. When editing such novels, a style sheet is essential to ensure integrity of the writing and editing, but it’s not all that’s needed.

If an editor had to refer to the style sheet to verify the spelling every time one of those names or terms popped up, the editor would be spending more time editing and would likely charge more for the extra time involved in doing so. I don’t because I found a great solution.

When using the spell checker in MS Word, it’s possible to add flagged words (red squiggly underlined ones) to the custom dictionary. However, there are potential problems associated with that. Sometimes made-up words can appear as misspellings of common words. Let’s say you named a town Ist and added that word to the dictionary. What happens in some other document if you meant to type “its” and mistyped it as “ist”? Word will see that spelling in the custom dictionary not flag the error. Oops. Hopefully you or your editor would catch it. But maybe not.

There is a way to avoid that problem (although not if you misspell “its” in that same document, so you have to be careful). In MS Word you can create additional special custom dictionaries, make them active or inactive, and make them the default dictionary while working on a particular manuscript. What “default” means here is that when you choose to add a new word to the dictionary, it will be added to the current default dictionary, not to the regular custom dictionary.

For the novel I was editing. I created a new custom dictionary and set it as the default while editing that author’s work. When done, I made that dictionary inactive (meaning Word would ignore any words in it) and reset the default back to the regular custom dictionary.

Here’s how you do that. In MS Word, go into FILE/OPTIONS/PROOFING. Look for the box marked “Custom Dictionaries” and click it. You will be presented with a list of dictionaries available to access. “CUSTOM.DIC” will be normally be checked and set as the default. You have the option here to add a new dictionary. Click the NEW button and enter the name of your new dictionary. Be sure you keep .dic as the name extension. Then click SAVE or OK (depending on your version of Word). The new dictionary will be created and made active (with a check mark in front of it) automatically. If you want to make this the current default dictionary, then select that dictionary from the list and click the DEFAULT button. That’s all you need to do.

When you’re done using that dictionary, be sure to set Custom.dic back to the default. You should probably uncheck your new dictionary as well so it doesn’t interfere with spell checking in other documents. You can create as many custom dictionaries as you want, and you can edit any of the dictionaries at any time if you want to remove words or fix an error. You can also manually add words at any time.

It’s also possible to create a custom dictionary from a list of words you already have (such as in your style sheet) instead of adding them one at a time manually or adding them from the spell checker.

Below are the instructions on how to create a dictionary from a list of words. Before you do, alphabetize the list (you can use the SORT function in MS Word), then copy and paste it into Notepad per the instructions below:


Open Notepad and save your list of words as a .DIC file.

Ensure you select Unicode from the Encoding dropdown list next to the save button.

Presuming that you are using Windows 7 or 10, place your new .dic file in the following folder:

C:\Users{your username}\AppData\Roaming\Microsoft\UProof

For Word 2007: Open Word and Click the Microsoft Office Button and then Click Options.

For Word 2010 (or 2016): Open Word and Click File, then Options.

Select Proofing.

Click Custom Dictionaries.

Click Add…

Select the .dic file you just created by browsing to the file location and Click Open.

If you want the new dictionary to be the default, highlight it and Click Change Default.

Click Ok.


Hopefully that helps makes your editing life easier. Now, let’s return to our other editing challenges.

As I pointed out in the previous post on style sheets, there is not always consistency in how the various sword names are used: one word, two words, or hyphenated. Of three common types of swords—longsword, broadsword, shortsword—only the first two are correct as one word, and MS Word’s spellchecker accepts them as such. But “short sword” is two words, yet many sources have it as one word. The same goes for armor: chainmail, platemail, ringmail. Only the first is commonly one word. And so on.

Because it can look stupid and inconsistent in a novel to have some sword types as one word and others as two words (and in the novel I was editing, the author added “great-sword”), some authors may adopt their own rules. I doubt that any reader would fault you for hyphenating all of them.

That’s complicated enough, but what about made-up terms such as military ranks and titles that don’t exist in our world? What about capitalization of terms and titles? There are some basic rules/guidelines we normally follow for capitalization, but when we’re creating a world and adding new terms that don’t quite fit existing conventions, what do we do? For example, if you have a central king who rules over several lesser kings, you might refer to him as the High King. You might even want to hyphenate that title (“High-King Reynard” rather than “High King Reynard”) and when referring to him by title only you might want to use High-King (whereas our normal conventions would have it lowercase). It’s your world, after all, so you’re allowed to make up the rules.

Where does this leave us when it comes to style sheets and editing? Well, having a clear and detailed style sheet will allow you to ensure consistency in format whenever you do make up terms and names. And if you outsource your editing, this will ensure that your editor follows your wishes instead of changing things to fit the “standard” rules. If you’re paying an editor, you want that editor fix errors, but you don’t what your choices undone.

I will close with a cautionary note regarding the use of special punctuation and accent marks in names. These can make it more difficult for readers to pronounce your names and terms. Hyphenated names are generally okay, but apostrophes (and I’ve seen occasional exclamation marks) in names are usually discouraged because the reader may be unsure how to pronounce the name. Remember that readers will usually mentally pronounce names as an aid to memory. Anything that makes puts the pronunciation in doubt may cause the reader to stumble.

In the fantasy novel I mentioned here, the author chose to put various accent marks above vowels in some of the names (some of which were already difficult to imagine pronunciations for). Again, I don’t mean this as a criticism of the author’s writing but as a caution when it comes to editing.

If you create a name like Stearíc (with an accent over the “i”) you increase the chance of misspelling it yourself because “Stearic” without the accent is a legitimate English word (look it up), and unless you’re a chemist or biochemist, you may not be aware the word exists and that your spell checker won’t catch it misspelled without the accent. Likewise, your editor may miss it because the accent is easy to mistake for the dot over the eye in some fonts.

Even when using a custom dictionary, for a name like Elôr (although I admit that the accented “ô” makes the name look really cool), it’s possible that you could accidentally add both the accented and unaccented forms of the name to the dictionary without realizing it, and the spell checker would then not catch the discrepancy.

My best advice is that it’s okay to use occasional special accents, but should recognize the risks and potential effects of your readers.

When writing your novel, consider the wisdom of using a style sheet, even if it’s not a fantasy or sci-fi novel. Your style sheet is your guide to your decisions and choices, and it will make your life and your editor’s life easier.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.