We may not consciously think about style while we’re writing. We’re too busy getting the words down and telling the story. Still, in the back of our minds, we’re thinking, What style is best for this story?
I’m not talking about the genre, the make-up of the characters, how the plot plays out or how words are composed to create a feeling for readers. I’m talking about the style of mechanics we consciously decide upon to create the story.
I’ve not heard of other writers talk about style sheets, and I’ve never created one for any writing I’ve done for either fiction or non-fiction. But in the back of my brain are a few basic commands that come into play while I’m writing.
For example, when I’m writing my genealogy column, I avoid using too many contractions. I also use short paragraphs because in the newspaper world, columns are narrow, making a long paragraph look even longer. This, apparently, can tire a reader’s eyes (and interest) faster than short paragraphs.
When I write for children, I avoid complex text and punctuation. When I write fantasy, I’m more likely to use words such as goblet instead of glass, spirtle instead of wooden spoon. Basically they are the same things, yet one conjures images of fantasy whilst the other takes us to the kitchen where dirty dishes await.
Place names, character names and other unique spellings can be confusing. To keep them straight, authors should create a list of spellings used and record them on the style sheet. This is extra important if the writer chooses different spellings than the norm (Randie for Randy, Bryan for Brian, majick for magic). This list will also help editors when working on a manuscript. The last thing you want is an editor thinking you don’t know how to spell a word/name and replace your unique spelling with the standard.
In my fantasy novels, I write wagon with two Gs. It’s an old spelling. For me waggon carries more weight (pun intended). It’s not spelt incorrectly, only differently than the current way it is spelt.
Words that have evolved over the past 15 years can be tricky, so if you’ve used them, note your preferred spelling. The list includes the following (and more, I’m sure):
- e-mail (email)
- Internet (internet)
- e-book (eBook; ebook)
- web site (website)
If there are a lot of names and special spellings to keep track of, they should be arranged in alphabetical order for quick reference.
The preferred punctuation should also be noted on a style sheet. For example, do you put spaces on either side of an em dash and ellipsis (apples – pears – fell; silent … before)? Or do you leave them out (apples–pears–fell; silent…before)?
Do you use the serial comma (I ate apples, grapes, and bananas for lunch.), or do you leave it out (I ate apples, grapes and bananas for lunch.)?
Are you jumping on the wagon and eliminating the commas before and after ‘however’? (I wish to attend the concert, however, I am unable to do so. OR I wish to attend the concert however I am unable to do so.)
Dates must also be addressed. Do you write Tuesday April 5, 2020 or Tuesday, April 5, 2020 or 04 05 2020 or 05 04 2020 (which may need further explanation to decipher the month from the day) or 05 April 2020.
Speaking of numbers, do you write all of them out (twenty-five) or do you write out only those ten and under (eight, 26)?
And then there is time. Do you write 6:36 pm or 6:36 PM or 6:36 p.m.?
Which spelling rules do you follow for your book: Canadian/British, American or a mixture of both (colour/color, sceptical/skeptical, defence/defense)?
Which leads us into measurements: Do you write six feet or two metres? Is the shop three miles down the road or six kilometres*. Or, if you’re a Canadian over 30 and have a grasp on both, Imperial and Metric, do you use a mixture? That’s tricky for me since I know the construction trade has not made the conversion, so I still measure everything in inches and feet when using a measuring tape. I’m completely lost when faced with 128 cm. If you want to stay true to a character living in Nova Scotia, the story should use the Imperial measurements when dealing with construction.
(*If you were born and bred in Nova Scotia, you know we often don’t use measurements in distance to tell how far away something is; we use time. It’s ten minutes down the road.)
This is also true for baking. Perhaps the younger generation understands grams and ounces, but I still use cups and teaspoons. And so do my characters. However, when someone in Nova Scotia talks about the weather, we talk Metric: it’s 30 degrees out! That’s Celsius not Fahrenheit. For those of us stuck with old furnace thermostats, we set it on 68 degrees Fahrenheit for a comfortable daytime temperature.
The news reports might tell us 15 cm of snow is on the way, but when we start shovelling it, we say six inches fell. (I know; we are completely messed up here. Although schools strictly adhere to Metric, we, as parents, teach our children our multi-measuring craziness.)
Perhaps in sixty years, when all those who danced between Metric and Imperial die off, Metric will rule, but any story I read that uses Metric only seems illogical. Atlantic Canadians are a mixture of both measures, and if a writer wants to stay true to us, they have to use both.
Make a note on the style sheet to ensure you are consistently using one measurement or another, or you’re switch from one to another, depending on the circumstances.
The key to making both readers and publishers happy is consistency. A style guide is a key component in keeping all the mechanics in a manuscript consistent, so put it to work.
The bonus of creating a style guide is if you are writing a series, you will have all these fine details at your fingertips before you start writing.
Style sheets don’t need to be created before you start writing. I don’t think it’s possible to do a thorough job without completing at least the first draft. It can be started, however, and created as the story progresses. Character names and location names can be listed as they are used. The list will save time by not having to flip through the story to see, for example, Glen was spelt with two Ns (Glenn).
Style sheets also work for websites to keep them consistent. For tips on how to create one, check out Improve Your Website’s post Before You Go Live.
Have you used a style sheet before?