Editing: Part 4 – What are style guides and why do I need them?

Before we move on, let’s briefly revisit when to edit. I stated in the last post that I write first, then edit. That is how I work on major projects, such as books. However, a comment made me realize that I usually edit as I write when I’m writing short pieces, such as blog posts. I find it easier to plan a few hundred words than to fully develop the plot and characters for an 80,000-word novel. As I write short pieces, I make revisions and corrections, then do a final edit of the complete article. The advice in this series is aimed at longer work, but much of it is relevant to shorter pieces as well.

Now let’s talk about style guides/style sheets. A style guide defines the house style of a publication regarding such things as spelling, capitalization, punctuation, word usage, and formatting. Many elements of writing – such as whether or not to use serial commas – are style choices, not grammar rules. The style guide specifies the style used by the publication.

The Associated Press Stylebook, used by newspapers, states that serial commas (the comma before the and in a series) are not used unless required to avoid confusion. The The Chicago Manual of Style, used by book publishers, specifies the use of serial commas, as does the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, Fifth Edition, used in academia and social science publications. Writers must follow the prescribed style guide, which can be complicated. The Chicago Manual is about 700 pages long – that’s a lot of rules. And there are many other style guides applicable to specific publications or academic areas of study, such as AMA Manual of Style: A Guide for Authors and Editors, The Columbia Guide to Online Style, and MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing. You need to become familiar with the appropriate style guide(s) required by your publisher(s).

Perhaps you think that you don’t have to follow a style guide because you’re writing a blog or a book you will self-publish or your memoir. You may not have to follow the house style of a particular publication, but you need to ensure that you are consistent in your writing. Readers find it confusing if you erratically change the style rules you follow – like a friend of mine back in the days when people still wrote letters. If she wasn’t sure how to spell a word, rather than look it up, she’d spell it a different way each time she wrote it. She’d probably be right at least once!

I suggest you choose – and follow – a general style guide, such as the venerable The Elements of Style or the Web site Guide to Grammar and Writing. You may also want to choose a specific dictionary to use for spelling, as there are sometimes differences.

However, if you’re writing a novel or nonfiction book – or if you want to ensure that your blog posts and articles are consistent – you need to develop your own style sheet. This can be as basic or as complex as you need for your work. A simple list that includes the spelling of names and words you use often along with anything specific to your writing (how to format your bulleted lists, whether or not to capitalize industry terms) and your style guide and dictionary of choice may be all you need.

The Writer’s Resource Center recommends that novelists create an information guide for their novel. The linked post is Part One. I’ll add a link to Part Two when it’s available. Part 2 gives a sample information guide that may be very helpful to you in creating your own.

Information guide is probably a better term because style guide generally refers to spelling, punctuation, usage, and other style issues. You need to keep track of a lot more than that in a novel or in a nonfiction book.

Your information guide for a novel might include:

  • The spelling of names and places so Lizzie in Timbucktoo doesn’t accidentally turn into Lizzy in Timbuctoo somewhere along the line
  • Character traits, habits, and speech patterns of the characters so your high school dropout doesn’t start talking like a college graduate without making any effort to do so
  • Physical descriptions and details about characters and places so your brunette heroine doesn’t turn into a blonde without the benefit of bleach and the trip that took ten minutes in chapter one doesn’t take an hour in chapter ten
  • Details about the setting (time and place) so your 18th century lady doesn’t use words that didn’t come into use until the 19th century or your magician’s powers don’t change randomly without reason
  • Anything else that needs to remain consistent throughout the story

Your information guide for a nonfiction might include:

  • The spelling of names, places, and other elements so your Law of Self-Esteem doesn’t become the ego rule
  • The steps in your how-to or the important points of your theory so you don’t skip a step or leave out the essential logic that makes your theory believable
  • Anything else that needs to be included in your manuscript to deliver the message you want readers to receive

In most cases, you won’t just write the information guide once, then use it forever after. You’ll revise the guide as you make changes or add characters or plot points to your book. The guide won’t be useful unless it’s accurate, so you need to update the information guide whenever you make changes to your manuscript.

Your guide will help you write your book because you won’t have to rely on your memory of something you wrote 150 pages ago. Perhaps more importantly, your guide will help you edit efficiently. Writing a book usually takes months, and by the time you reach the editing stage – or after you’ve made changes several times – it’s easy to lose track of details. You’ll find it much easier to refer to your information guide than to search back through your manuscript to find the color of the heroine’s eyes. Even if you didn’t create a guide before you wrote the manuscript, you can develop one before and during editing.

I’ve come to realize the need for a style sheet or information guide after years of trying to remember all the details of a story. Recently, I discovered a minor character in a novel I was editing was called Dimple in one place and Dimples in another. I had to contact the author to find out which he wanted to use. If we had created a style sheet/information guide for the novel before I started editing, I would have known the correct name. I don’t plan on encountering that kind of problem again.

Whether you call it a style guide, an information sheet, or just your notes … I think you’ll find having a record of important details about your manuscript will enhance your editing skills.

Next, we’ll talk about the first round of editing – developmental/content/substantive editing, revising, rewriting.

Share this!