At an Editors’ Vine virtual meeting in November, Editors Canada member Lesley Cameron presented “Getting the Most from Style Sheets.” Here are some of the highlights from her talk.
The primary function of a style sheet is to record all style decisions about a text to ensure consistency within a document. That, in turn, can cut down the number of queries directed at an author and reduce the risk of their having to answer the same questions over and over. Style sheets are also an excellent way for editors to discreetly communicate with each other.
At some point in your career you’ll likely inherit a style sheet whose layout or organization doesn’t work for you. Don’t reorganize the entire style sheet. Instead, save a copy that you can reorganize to suit your own preferences and use Track Changes to record any updates or additions. You can then easily copy your updates across to the original style sheet and return it without offending anyone.
Be tidy when you’re updating a style sheet. Use a consistent typeface for your additions and, at the very least, alphasort your word list.
If a style sheet deviates significantly from the style preferences of the text, don’t be too quick to assume that the person before you didn’t do a thorough job. It’s possible that changes were made to either the text or the style sheet after they submitted their versions to their contact person.
What to include
To keep things simple, state what style guide you’re following (often a house style) and list any exceptions to that style. If you’re following The Chicago Manual of Style, you can quote the section numbers for reference. Otherwise, it’s helpful to note which form of English (Canadian, American, etc.) and which dictionaries are being used, punctuation preferences, treatment of numbers (including preferences for metric or imperial), hyphenation preferences, and references/notes formats as a quick reference list.
Also note how non-English words are treated. If house style is to italicize them on first mention, consider making a separate list of them so the copy editor or proofreader can check for the italic quickly and easily. Make a list of specific terms used in the text, including alternative spellings and people’s names (I generally use the last name, first name format). It’s also worth noting any particular author preferences. For example, at various times I’ve been asked to avoid using em-dashes, semicolons, and the word “thus.” My style sheet template also has a “please leave the following wording as is” section where I list quirky or unconventional phrasing that the author wants to be left as is. If your client uses design tags (e.g., <H1>, <H2>, <list> </list> to indicate heading levels, bulleted lists, etc.), they can also be listed on the style sheet for easy reference.
Communicate with your colleagues
If you choose your words carefully, you can use your style sheet to communicate problematic issues with a project to your colleagues. Be diplomatic and respectful. For example, if an author has proven resistant to being edited, you could include a note along the lines of “Author preference is that you read for spelling and grammatical errors only.” Such notes can save time, energy, and tempers all round.
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