Why You Need a Style Sheet and How to Create One

I'm helping two friends who have just completed a book manuscript. They work beautifully together and will have a wonderful book when it's finished.

But right now, tiny inconsistencies appear everywhere. In one chapter, all numbers are in words; in another, most numbers are in figures. Sometimes the names of months are spelled out, but sometimes it's Feb., Sept., and Dec. People's titles, possessive forms of names that end in s, academic degrees, the names of states–all are rendered various ways. Those inconsistencies would diminish the book if they remained in the final published copy. 

Yes, the writers need a proofreader. But they also need a style sheet–a set of rules that govern situations where more than one choice is correct. 

You might think that's the job of a style manual. Why don't they just choose The Chicago Manual of Style or AP Stylebook and follow its rules? 

A style manual could help them eliminate lots of inconsistencies. But it couldn't include guidance on how to render terms that are specific to their subject.

For instance, it couldn't tell them whether to use Seattle First Baptist Church, Seattle First Baptist, First Baptist, Seattle First, SFBC–or all five ways to refer to the church whose history they are capturing. Only they can make the many decisions like that one. And in each case, they need to record their decision so they don't end up having to decide over and over or to undo the work of a copyeditor or proofreader who wasn't in on the decision.

Where might you use a style sheet to keep track of editorial decisions and avoid embarrassing inconsistencies?  

If you write articles, newsletters, web content, brochures, procedures, annual reports–all kinds of business pieces–a style sheet can save you embarrassment and hours of time revisiting style questions. 

Beyond that use, if you have new employees, contractors, or interns, a style sheet can help them use the correct terms from the start. For instance, how do you render your company name? Is it like one of these?

Our Company

OurCompany

our company 

ourcompany

Our Company Inc.

Our Company, Inc.

OUR COMPANY

OUR COMPANY LTD. 

How your company name is spelled, capitalized, and formatted is anyone's guess. And the correct rendering will not appear in a style manual. It has to be on your style sheet. 

Click the image below to see a sharper copy of a style sheet in progress. 

Style sheet example

 

Take these steps to create and maintain a style sheet:

  1. Make a list of names, expressions, and punctuation that your organization uses that people render–or might render–different ways. Examples: SHUTTLE, Shuttle, shuttle; a.m., A.M., AM.; web page, webpage; serial comma, no serial comma.
  2. With a small representative group of writers (including someone from corporate communications), decide which way will become the standard, that is, the right way for each item on the list. You will probably need to consult style manuals for guidance on some choices.
    Note: Do not create norms that disagree with widely accepted rules, or you will continually be defending them.
  3. Alphabetize the style sheet. 
  4. Post the style sheet online and invite a wider group of people to make suggestions or corrections. 
  5. Make the style sheet accessible to everyone in the organization, and inform everyone of its purpose and importance. 
  6. Continue to remind people about the style sheet and how to access and update it. 

At companies where I've taught business writing courses, a corporate communications person has often lamented the fact that a style sheet exists but no one pays attention to it. If you include information about it in employee onboarding, lunch and learns, writing courses, newsletters, etc., your style sheet can be a valuable living document throughout the organization. 

But for my friends who have just finished their church history, a style sheet will be the key to a clear, correct, impeccable final manuscript and book. I'd better get back to working on it! 

Do you have questions or comments on style sheets? I'm happy to help. 

Lynn
Syntax Training

8 COMMENTS

  1. Still no comments? Your readers must be all on holiday!

    Well, I don’t have an interesting input here, I only wish there was a style sheet in our Company. We don’t even use the same font in emails or contracts. Also our email signatures are inconsistent. Image matters in business…

  2. Hi Debby,

    I’ve noticed the lack of comments too. Maybe people just aren’t moved by the topic. But they should be, right?

    I wish there were a style sheet at your company too. Fonts, signatures, formats–having consistency in those (not to mention a range of other things) would make life easier for you and clearer for your customers.

    Have you tried to promote a style sheet?

    Good luck.

    Lynn

  3. Outstanding idea. I am sharing with some colleagues at work ā€“ those who are in the position to establish the guidance initially, and can then share it with others. Thereafter, we should hold ourselves and one another accountable to maintain consistency with our decisions regarding these internal style manual details. A good post. Thank you!

  4. I’m putting creation of a style sheet on my marketing & communications assistant’s project list. I’ve been thinking about it ever since I read your post, but today seeing “preventative” used in a draft social media post made me cringe. Why use more letters when you can use fewer with “preventive?” That’s going to be the first entry on the style sheet. I’m sharing this post with her if she hasn’t already read it since I made her subscribe to your blog.

  5. You asked,
    “Why don’t they just choose The Chicago Manual of Style or AP Stylebook and follow its rules?”

    One of the big reasons in my opinion is that those manuals are just too big for your regular employee to have to master. You have to cut them down to a small size with what is most essential for your fellow worker to know.

  6. Hi Shalom,

    I think “The AP Stylebook” is a reasonable size and is right for most businesses. The issue is that there are many things a company needs to decide for itself. Those items belong in a style sheet.

    Thanks for stopping by.

    Lynn

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