How to build your own 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.