How to Write a Style Sheet for Proofreading or Copy Editing

Style guides are a vital resource for any proofreader or editor. But not every client will have one. And in some cases, you may need to create a custom style sheet when editing a document. But when do you need to create a style sheet? And what should it include?

When Do I Need to Create a Style Sheet?

If a client specifies using a style guide (e.g. the AP Stylebook or CMoS), you can check it when proofreading should you come across any contentious stylistic issues. In other cases, a client may provide an in-house style sheet covering the same information.

However, if a client does not provide a style sheet, you may need to create one.

This isn’t necessary for shorter, one-off documents, as you should be able to identify stylistic preferences and inconsistencies by eye (and you can resolve any ambiguities with a comment or email). But you should create your own style sheet when:

  1. Proofreading a very long document (e.g. a novel manuscript or PhD dissertation) where you may need to ensure consistency across dozens or hundreds of pages.
  2. Working regularly for one client who wants to ensure consistency across documents.

But what should you include in a proofreading style sheet? Let’s take a look.

What to Include in a Proofreading Style Sheet

The idea of a style sheet is to ensure consistency within a document or set of documents by noting down any stylistic preferences. And while the exact content of a style sheet will depend on the client and/or document in question, it will usually cover things such as the following.

Linguistic Preferences

  • English dialect (e.g. British English, American English)
  • General writing style (e.g. academic, formal, informal)
  • Spelling preferences (e.g. -ise or –ize word endings)
  • Preferred terminology or vocabulary choices
  • Favoured abbreviations, acronyms, and initialisms
  • Whether to write numbers as words or numerals
  • Time and date formats

Punctuation and Capitalisation

  • Comma usage, including whether to use the Oxford comma
  • Use of hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes
  • Use of ‘single’ or “double” quote marks
  • Spacing of ellipses (i.e. spaced or unspaced)
  • Capitalisation preferences (e.g. sentence case or title case)

Formatting and Layout Issues

  • Preferred font size and typeface
  • Use of bold, italics, and underlining
  • Heading and subheading styles
  • Indentation and line breaks
  • How to begin new chapters and sections
  • Page numbering style and consistency
  • Use of page footers and headers
  • Margins and page orientation
  • Presentation of images and other non-textual elements

Not all these will be relevant to every document, so keep your style sheet streamlined by only including necessary information. Likewise, don’t worry about basic rules of grammar or punctuation (e.g. capitalising proper nouns); focus on what makes your client’s style unique.

Structuring a Style Sheet

When you know what your style sheet will include, break it down into sections for easy reference. Each section should have a clear heading and cover one aspect of the document’s style: one section for linguistic preferences, one for punctuation, one for formatting, etc.

This will make the style sheet easier to use for yourself, the client, and any other editors who are working on the same project (e.g. if a company hires several editors to work on different documents but needs to ensure consistency across all written content).

Specialist Style Sheets: Academic and Creative Writing

The list above covers general issues that any style sheet might include. However, there are other things that you may need to cover, especially with academic or creative writing.

For academic writing, for instance, you might also need to include:

  • Information on your client’s chosen referencing style
  • Technical terminology where precision is important
  • Labelling and presentation of figures, tables, and charts
  • How to format the title page, list of contents, appendices, etc.

For fiction or narrative non-fiction, meanwhile, you may need to cover:

  • Character names and key details
  • Locations, including details about geography and buildings
  • Major plot points and a timeline of events
  • Non-standard spellings or slang, especially in dialogue
  • How to present characters’ speech and thoughts

As with any style sheet, though, the key is tailoring its content to your client’s requirements.

Template Style Sheets

We even have template style sheets available for fiction, non-fiction, business writing, and academic writing. You can find them in our resources area here.

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