How to Use a Style Sheet Effectively

In this article, I’ll explain how to properly use a style sheet to ensure absolute consistency in any document that you are editing.

It is mainly aimed at professional editors, but the information is certainly also relevant to writers who want to learn how to achieve consistency in their writing, particularly across long documents such as theses and manuscripts.

If you’d like to watch a video discussing style sheets instead of reading this article, you can find one on our YouTube channel here.

What is a Style Sheet?

The style sheet is an essential tool for the editor in maintaining complete consistency in a document, as well as for the author, who, once given the style sheet by their editor, can refer to it when working further on his or her work.

The Australian Editing Handbook (pp. 91–93) provides an excellent explanation of what a style sheet is, and how it should be used. Most professional editors in Australia should have a copy of this resource, written by Elizabeth Flann, Beryl Hill and Lan Wang.

They explain that a style sheet records all the style and spelling decisions made about a particular text. They describe a style sheet as normally having two parts: the first is the list of all the style decisions, for example, using unspaced em rules or spaced en rules, which foreign words to italicise, and which rules you will follow for numerals and measurements.

The second part is an A to Z list including all words about which spelling, capitalisation, hyphenation or presentation decisions had to be made.

Further Important Sections for Your Style Sheet

However, depending on the context in which you are working, a style sheet can also include four other important sections that aren’t covered by the Australian Editing Handbook.

Two of these are sections for decisions in relation to formatting and referencing. These are integral aspects of the work of an academic editor, for example.

Another section that might be included is one for shortened forms (by this I mean abbreviations, acronyms and initialisms, commonly referred to under the umbrella term of ‘abbreviations’). The Australian Editing Handbook assumes that you would include shortened forms in your A to Z list.

However, if you are editing a document that contains a significant number of them, such as a postgraduate thesis, it is best practice to list these in a separate section, since you should be checking for their correct use and creating or correcting the list of abbreviations as one specific task, rather than sporadically as you are working through the A to Z list to ensure accuracy consistency in other matters.

A final useful section to include in your style sheet, which is valuable across all types of editing, is common errors made by the author. For example, the incorrect use of phrases like ‘In the other hand’, rather than ‘On the other hand’ (so you can double check that these have all been corrected during your edit), or overuse of phrases such as ‘in particular’ (so that you can make sure your editing has reduced the number of times they are used).

If you are following a house style, you don’t have to include items that are covered in that style, if you know it very well. But if you are a freelance editor working with various house styles, or if you know the author will be working on the document further after you return it to them and they won’t have a copy of the house style, then you should include everything.

How to Use Your Style Sheet

You should have a template style sheet with the sections you commonly use saved that you can open at the beginning of every edit, and ‘save as’ for the current job. As you are editing (i.e. as you go, not at the end), you then add to this style sheet all the stylistic decisions you make, the common errors you see, and all shortened forms encountered in the document.

As an example, working through a paragraph, you see the acronym WTO, so you would add that to your style sheet under ‘Shortened Forms’ to allow you to later check that the acronym has been defined and used properly. Then, you see ‘focussed’. Assuming this particular document is to be edited following the Macquarie Dictionary, which you know uses ‘focused’ instead, you would add ‘focused’ and ‘focusing’ to your spelling list. Finally, in the paragraph, you see ‘co-operate’. Again, according to Macquarie, this should be ‘cooperate’, so you would add that to your hyphenation list.

When to Make Decisions

It is important to make decisions about how all of these items should be presented the first time you encounter them, if possible. Adding them to your style sheet at this point will ensure that you are more likely to present the majority of them correctly as you are editing, which will save you time at the end of your edit when you are implementing your style sheet. It will also save you time that you otherwise might spend agonising over which of the four different possible presentations of a word!

Exceptions to Your Style Manual

Most professional editors will be editing to conform to a specific style guide, house style or dictionary, and thus will be able to make these decisions easily. The only time you might change your mind about a decision is if you later come to realise that the author has exhibited a definite preference for one option over another, and that option is a valid one in the document being edited. For example, the author of an academic journal article might wish for you to follow the Snooks & Co. Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers and the Macquarie Dictionary overall, but there might be certain words that are more commonly presented in a way that conflicts with these resources in their academic discipline. For example, Macquarie’s first preference for the plural of ‘curriculum’ is ‘curriculums’, but the field of education most commonly prefers to use ‘curricula’.

Implementing Your Style Sheet

The time to implement your style sheet is after you have completed your edit. You then will use it to check that shortened forms have been used correctly, to ensure that your decisions have been applied consistently in the document in relation to spelling, hyphenation, capitalisation and other presentation issues such as italics or punctuation marks, and to guard against any errors or inconsistencies remaining in the document. And of course, you would also follow the style sheet for any other matters you had included in it, such as formatting or referencing.

For example, if ‘focused’ is in your spelling list, you will use Word’s Find function to search for all instances of ‘focuss’ to make sure that no instances of ‘focussed’ or ‘focussing’ remain in the document.

Tidying Up Your Style Sheet for Your Client

After you have implemented your style sheet and finalised your edit of the document you are working on, if you need to provide the author with a copy of your style sheet, you will need to tidy it up before you can send it.

To tidy up the style sheet, you just need to remove any sections that are not of use to the author. That is, the section you added for common author errors; and, if the document already contains a complete List of Abbreviations, the shortened forms section. You may or may not wish to leave the formatting and referencing sections. If you do, you’ll need to check that these are all readily understood and relevant for the author, and delete any items that are unlikely to be useful. As part of tidying up the style sheet, it is recommended that you alphabetise the lists of word-related decisions.

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