How to build your own style sheet

how to build a style sheet

Reading time: About 5 minutes

Have you ever wondered how to build a style sheet? Has your boss ever asked you to create one? Here’s a straightforward guide on how to accomplish the task…

I’ve long held the belief that good copy editors are born, not made. I’m a very good substantive editor — I understand how to make text more interesting and readable. I know about the merits of transitions or connectors. With something similar to the knife skill of a sushi chef, I can take a 45-word sentence and fillet it into a 20-word one.

But I am a lousy copy editor. I just don’t have the DNA.

Copy editors are people with extraordinary attention to detail. They can spot a typo a mile away. They never forget that accommodate is spelled with two Cs and two Ms. They always double-check book titles and the spelling of authors’ names for accuracy. They have an opinion on the value of the serial comma.

I hired an excellent copy editor for my book, 8½ steps to writing faster, better.  It was one of the best investments I’ve ever made. After I’d finished the manuscript I had had a dozen friends — many of them professional writers — read it so they could give me feedback. Confidently, I then passed the revised manuscript along to my editor. I assumed, of course, that my friends would have already caught almost every error. How naive! The editor found errors or inconsistencies on just about every page. (I was horrified but very grateful.)

I would love to hire a copy editor for this column, but because it generates no income, I can’t afford to. Still, I have a writer friend review it, and she captures many errors and corrects much awkward language. (Thank you, Eve!) And copy editors, and others, often email me after spotting errors, which I fix immediately. (Thank you, Philomena and Russ.)

If you can’t afford to hire an editor for your blog or other written text, today’s post is a lesson on how to make your writing look more professional by building your own style sheet. I’m writing this on the request of one of my clients. Here are 13 tips:

  1. Understand the difference between grammar and style. You can get everything “right” grammatically speaking but still produce an inconsistent or hard-to-read blog or document if you don’t have a style sheet. A style sheet is a set of standards for the writing and formatting of text. It spells out what you do in certain circumstances (e.g., how you manage numbering, capitalization or headlines).
  2. Begin by selecting a published style guide that already exists. To save time and money, your best bet is to adopt one of those and then use your “sheet” as a list of your own exceptions to its rules. Here is a list of style guides you might want to consider:
  1. Choose your spelling. English speakers will want to select American or British or a definable variation. For example, the CP style guide — which is what many Canadian writers use — specifies British spelling except where the American is shorter. Thus, theatre is always spelled with an RE at the end but color was for 80 years spelled without the U. In 1998, in response to complaints from readers— who didn’t understand the somewhat-obscure rule and worried that Canadian journalism was becoming “too American” — CP style added the U back into colour and favour and neighbour. If you have exceptions like this, or unusual words that you use regularly, list them in your style sheet in alphabetical order.
  2. Select your dictionary. Did you know that a number of words have more than one correct spelling? Here’s a partial list: acknowledgment/acknowledgement; adviser/advisor; aesthetic/esthetic; analog/analogue; archaeology/archeology; ax/axe; collectable/collectible; barbecue/barbeque; disc/disk; donut/doughnut; enquire/inquire; toward/towards; whiskey/whisky. For the sake of consistency, consult the same dictionary every time. Most British and many Canadian writers or companies will pick The Oxford English Dictionary  or The Canadian Oxford Dictionary.  The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language  is a good choice for Americans. Note that the name Webster is only a generic trademark, and books carrying that name are not necessarily consistent with each other, so be sure to specify the edition and year if you’re going to select one of those.
  3. Decide whether you want your headlines to be up-style or down-style. This refers to your use of capitalization. Up-style capitalization, also called headline style, uses capital letters for all major words in a head (e.g., How to Build Your Own Style Sheet); down-style capitalization, also called sentence style, uses lower case (e.g., How to build your own style sheet). In my view, down-style capitalization appears more modern or contemporary. But this is simply the current fashion. I’ve noticed that writers are often willy-nilly in the way they use capitals in headlines. If you have decided to use a down-style approach, then be sure NOT to capitalize anything except the first word and proper nouns. Many people seem to have a hard time following this rule.
  4. Determine your other rules relating to capitalization. Here are some other points of style you need to decide: Will you capitalize holidays (Mother’s Day)? Historical times (the Middle Ages)? Nationalities and race (African)? Seasons (Spring, Summer)? Be sure to capitalize trade names (Aspirin, Coca-Cola, Mylar) or use the generic equivalent (headache pill, cola drink, polyester film) so that you don’t risk being sued. Make a decision about job titles. Many companies insist on constructions such as Company President Mary-Jane Smith, but I find that rather old-fashioned looking and would prefer to see company president in lower case. My very old (1983) CP style guide — a legacy from my time in newspapers — spends 25 pages outlining its rules on capitalization. The issue is complex.
  5. Figure out how you will handle place names. It’s likely that you’ll be naming towns and cities in your own country. In the US, Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Ohio and Utah are usually spelled out. In Canada you need to decide between the standard abbreviation for provinces and the postal one — Alta. vs. AB for Alberta. (Apologies that I don’t know the rules for any other countries.)
  6. Identify your style for dates and times. Writers frequently need to give dates — and sometimes times — in documents or blog entries. Always do it in the same way. For months, I suggest abbreviating only Jan., Feb., Aug., Sept., Oct., Nov. and Dec. Spell out the others: July 28, 2015. And be sure to put a comma after the date of the month. Use numerals for times except for noon and midnight. To avoid ambiguity, write midnight Thursday night rather than midnight Thursday. Avoid the colon unless you need to specify the minutes, so 3 pm (rather than 3:00 pm) but 3:30 pm for the half hour. Oh, and decide whether to write a.m./p.m. or to exclude the period, as I do. If you are writing for the Web — a geographically diverse audience — be sure to specify the time zone: EST, MST, PST (or EDT, MDT or PDT for daylight saving time.)
  7. Decide on your rules for numbers. The general rule in most journalism is that numbers under 10 should be written out (eight instead of 8) and 10 and above are always given as numerals (45, not forty-five). Never begin a sentence with a numeral, even if it’s larger than 10. Say: Forty-five people attended the meeting rather than: 45 people. Or rewrite the sentence so that it doesn’t begin with the number. Note that the following numbers can always be shown as numerals, regardless of size: ages, addresses, dates, temperatures, times, money and numbers in the thousands.
  8. Develop rules for abbreviations. The standard rule calls for omitting periods in all-capital abbreviations (UFO, VIP) and abbreviations that begin and end with a capital letter (PhD, PoW). Titles such as Doctor, Professor and Sergeant can be abbreviated on first reference when used as a title (i.e., Dr., Prof., Sgt.).
  9. Determine how to handle measurements. Generally, spell out units such as foot, kilogram, minute and metre. When using common terms such as km/h or mph or rpm, it’s fine to use the abbreviation when paired with a number: 70 km/h (or kph) or 90 mph. Note that metric units take periods only at the end of a sentence.
  10. Settle your approach for book titles and movies. I prefer putting book titles and movie names in italics. Others simply put them in quotation marks. Decide on your rule and be consistent.
  11. Figure out how many spaces you’ll use at the end of a sentence. I’m always amazed at the way people will fight about this one. It seems obvious that the two-spaces-after-every-period rule is a legacy of the manual typewriter. To me, using two spaces looks horribly old-fashioned. But I’m not going to get into this fight, so I won’t prescribe what you should do. Whichever choice you make, just be consistent about it.

I know it’s hard to read a list like this and not feel overwhelmed. If you need to develop a style guide, don’t try to do it overnight. Instead, take a more measured approach. Pick an already published guide and, when you disagree with it, start to build your own list of “exceptions.” You’ll save your sanity this way and soon enough you will have produced a very fine and useful style sheet that will make your writing more polished.

Have you ever had to build a style sheet? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by August 31/15 will be put in a draw for a copy of a lovely book of essays on writing, Swallowing the Sea, by Lee Upton. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “more from my site” links, below.

Posted August 18th, 2015 in Power Writing

  • Sylvain Martel

    Yikes, I must say that ,yes, that list -is- intimidating. But I guess it’s mostly a one time big effort and then smaller efforts to keep it updated.

  • Oriana Houston

    Personally, I believe I am one of those born copy editors. Inconsistencies and errors bug me so much…

    I see the value in elaborating a style sheet. I make up rules for my own writing, however keeping of all of them in my head isn’t exactly easy.

    • It’s impossible to keep all this stuff in your head. That’s why we all need style sheets!

  • Thank you Daphne, I’ll be sharing this post as a resource for – well – forever.

    I run a membership association, and our style sheet includes
    1: colors (otherwise people get frisky),
    2: fonts (a serif, sans serif, and handwriting font),
    3: nouns we capitalize as part of our consistent branding: Team, Member, Substitute, Visitor,
    4: words we don’t cap: membership, substitution,
    5: and words we never use: guest, lead.

  • gordongraham

    Thanks for this article! And keep them coming.

    I believe the point of a style sheet is to handle the same issues the same way, within a document and across documents from the same organization.

    A seasoned editor told me years ago how to create an effective style sheet “on the fly”… you just deal with each issue as it comes up in a text, and note down your decision. Then you handle that issue the same way from then on.

    Of course, find-and-replace is your friend for going back to check for any missed instances of that issue. You can read more in my article here… http://bit.ly/1TRJel8

  • Thanks for this Daphne – I’m very lucky to have my old “editor pal” – remember that program? – from the Sun, who is willing to copy edit my books for beer and Chinese food. Former deputy news editor, R.R. who I’m sure you remember.
    My personal cross to bear is foreign words, which I’ve finally settled on ital for first use and regular thereafter. There are so many right ways to do it, you just end up picking one that seems rightest to you.
    The strange thing after working with editors nearby for so many years is filing something and not getting it back with a series of WTF? questions attached. I kind of miss it. Also the paycheque …

    • Hi John. I remember RR so well. I still see him in the neighbourhood from time to time. (We live not far from each other.) Thanks for mentioning foreign words. That’s another item that should be in most style sheets.

  • jenlouden

    oh god, as someone who is dyslexic and profoundly bad at details, copy editing has been a profound source of shame. I was lucky to have a great copy editor for all my books and now to have an assistant who spares me some of the pain of my errors… sigh. Another great post!

    • Jen, please don’t be ashamed about being dyslexic! (My son is, too, and we’ve worked with him to be at ease with it.) We’re all born with certain strengths and weaknesses. Just get support with the latter. My big weakness? Numbers! When doctors ask me to count backwards from 100, using 7s, I just about melt into a puddle on the floor!

      • Bernardo

        Hi, Daphne

        I used to do the backward counting at the university as a drinking game! Believe me, practice makes perfect! Mostly… ;o)

        I have done some editing work, also in university, “normalizing” (as we called it) academic papers and texts. We had to follow a very strict manual that went as far as defining fonts, margins e paragraphs sizes.

        I worked in a team there, and there was this girl responsible for the copy editing that was awesome. She caught errors after 5 of us (considering ourselves semi-professionals!) went through the texts with a magnifying glass.

        As I work with IT, I imagined something else entirely about today’s column, but it reminded me of this times.

        One thing that I think you did not stress enough: how it makes writing easier. I follow one guide here in my work, and, after I became used to it, it makes the writing much more easy, not having to decide all these petty things (spaces, names, etc.). You can then focus (more!) on the subject of the writing.

        Best regards,

        • You make a really good point that having such a style sheet makes writing EASIER. Fewer decisions to make!

  • Mike S

    Thanks, Daphne. Very informative. Up to now, I never heard of a “style sheet”, nor did I know I needed one. Keep it coming.

  • Lynda

    If choosing one’s own style, as a freelancer it’s important to remember that style guides vary from publication to publication. If an editor and I have not worked together before and the information is not given in the submissions guidelines, I ask. My rules and the preferred style rules may be at odds with each other. I save myself time and money if I don’t need to make corrections to the copy.

    When writing blog posts I take certain liberties that I wouldn’t in commissioned work. However, I certainly keep those consistent within a single post.

    Although I’m not one of the brilliant copy editors, I’ve learned much from them. My favourite catch (that two other professional editors working on the article missed) was “busses” are kisses. I asked a friend to take a look before signing off on the changes, and I was so relieved that error did not go to print. It would have bugged me forever.

    Irksome errors appear more frequently nowadays. In a recent BBC TV series there were multiple instances of pronoun errors in the script. Subject pronouns were used where the object was required. If the BBC can’t get it right, no wonder the masses don’t either.

    • You make a really good point for freelancers, Lynda. Anyone who writes for someone else should always ask them for their style guide. You’re also right about the general increase in errors, I think. Fewer proofreaders around these days. Also, fewer people knowledgeable about grammar.

  • Maria

    Thank you for these practical suggestions. This post is particularly relevant to my current project.

    Thank you for your generous work.

  • Christianna rhymes with banana

    I have developed what I call a record of decisions (ROD) that I presnt to clients for consensus, then customize for specific projects. I find it much easier to explain to writers that they should keep track of things, especially when they have to consult a resource. The ROD is based on the house style of one of the major journals in the discipline where I work that is, in turn, based on CMS 16.

    The basic Word document consists of several tables with two columns. I use the left hand column to record the decision and often the trigger for the decision and the right-hand column to either record the source that sets the decision, sometimes as live links to CMS online or to specify NOT whatever.

    For each project the first table is where decisions for that project are recorded, which may include repetitions or differences from the basic table. I typically insert empty rows at the top of the table and add rows there so the most current decisions appear first. I usually return the most current ROD when I return drafts for review or sometimes send it alone to confirm whether my decisions are in line with the author’s intent. If I made a decision that I want to query for approval, I highlight the text in the row.

    I stress that this table can be used as the basis for a universal search and replace for consistency as drafts are completed or certainly just prior to distribution, submission, or publication.

    I work with L2 English speakers and I include a table for them to record new or unfamiliar vocabulary words. I try to get them to paraphrase the operant definition, use the word in a sentence, or note why they looked it up/included it in the first place.

    Wow. That was more than I intended to say.

    • Wow! You sure have a thorough process.

    • Christianna rhymes with banana

      Naturally the RoD for any project incorporates the journal or press style.

  • Charli Mills

    What a useful post, Daphne! Yes, I built a style sheet for my former employer and I am working on one for a client. It is a vital piece of branding. As an American, I use the AP Stylebook. I’m fascinated, though, to read about the spelling rules and changes from the CP. Communication requires clarity and credibility. I have basic style sheet for my blog with a few interesting guidelines: one, all story headlines are up-style though many writers submit down-style to me; two, country of origin is considered for spelling, thus I have multiple English spellings in the flash fiction I post. The latter rule is a style choice. I think it lends to the international flavor of my literary group and we have a tagline that reads, “Wrangling Words Around the World.” Like you, though, I wish I could afford a copy editor for my blog. I do hire one for my manuscripts and a good copy editor is valuable!

    • Good copy editors are worth their weight in gold!

      • Thank you … yes, we are!
        🙂

        -Kate

        • I have enormous respect for good copy editors as I was born without the gene for copy editing! (I’m an excellent substantive editor, however.)

  • Dani

    Thank you, Daphne. Very useful information, as always. I too had not heard of a personal style sheet, but it makes a great deal of sense. I am involved in more creative writing — not journalism, or blogging, etc. — but I can certainly see the merit of establishing clear editing guidelines, regardless of genre. Also, I consider myself somewhat old-fashioned when it comes to capitalization and the use of commas (and other puntcuation… semi-colon, anyone?), so it is good to see that, officially, there is still an on-going discussion about these issues and an acceptance of varied use.
    Thank you for your weekly missives. I look forward to them!

    • Just to be clear, I’m not recommending a “personal” style sheet. I addressed this issue because many of my readers may be asked by their bosses (or clients) to create a corporate or publication style sheet. As a creative writer, it’s not likely something that will affect you. (Unless your publisher has a style sheet they want you to follow.)

  • This is a great idea, Daphne, but I’m having a hard time getting my head around what this style sheet would look like when I’m done. It sounds like it would be a book, not a sheet. Would you consider doing a follow-up post on this with, perhaps, some examples? I go back and forth between the Chicago Manual of Style and the AP Stylebook. I have both on my desk.

    • Many style sheets are a number of pages long, but I wouldn’t call most of them “books.” Perhaps that’s because most people use either the AP or CP guide as a “base” (and both of those ARE books) and then the style sheets are simply exceptions.

  • Sole

    Thank you so much for this blog post, Daphne. As a Spanish speaker trying to improve my English writing, and trying also to “find” a style, it has been very useful. I know I am far away of publishing anything in English, but when I do some writing for practice, I use a tool (beta and free) the British Council has implemented that assesses your writing, both for spelling mistakes and sentence structure. Maybe it can be useful for other people:

    https://sat.ilexir.co.uk/

    • Thanks so much for sharing this really interesting link, Sole. I’ll give it a try and may even get a post out of it.

      • Sole

        Great!

  • Janet Nielsen

    Daphne, on the subject of headline capitalization, what about capitalizing every single word? This makes me cringe but some major websites seem to do it – the Huffington Post being one of them.

    • This raises an interesting point, Janet. Like you, I don’t enjoy the “look” of caps for every single word, but I recognize it as an acceptable style choice. Style is a set of preferences that aren’t grammatical rules. The most important thing is to be consistent.

  • KW

    I follow APA (I’m an academic) – but I love this for when I am allowed to choose. Thank you for your expert guidance.

  • William Stoner

    Daphne, Thanks for your style sheet pointers. One topic you did not mention (or given any prior discussion in your blog) are the proper usage for officer rank in the U. S. Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force. The ranks in the Services vary, for example a Navy CAPT (four regular gold stripes and one star on sleeve) is quite different in rank than an Army CPT (two silver bars). One source of proper abbreviations is PROTOCOL The Red Book, handbook of diplomatic, official and social usage.

  • Denise Bauer

    Wow, this is fantastic! Thanks so much, Daphne – your posts are always very helpful.

  • Brendan

    Thank you very much, not just for reminding me of style guides but for reminding me of consistency in whatever style guide I use.