Style Sheet: Don’t Let Your Manuscript Leave Home Without It

Okay, everyone sing it with me…

“We’ve got trouble, folks.

“Right here in Laube City.

“With a capital T and that rhymes with E and that stands for EDITOR!”

Ah, the joys of being edited. How often have you received a manuscript back from an editor only to find that this person changed elements of your manuscript that never should have been changed? That she “corrected” terminology specific to an industry, and her corrections made it all wrong? That he lowercased your deity pronouns when you wanted them uppercased. That a word you intentionally misspelled for a character’s voice is now dictionary perfect? That the edits “for clarity” have changed the details of something you researched in detail, that you made painstaking effort to write correctly, and now it was a mess? Worse, anyone in the know who reads the book now will blame you for getting it wrong!

Well, rejoice! I have a simple solution to all these problems. Friends, meet the trusty Style Sheet.

I first learned about these wonderful tools as an editor, but it didn’t take me long to realize what a benefit style sheets are for writers. Because you can use them to list any and everything you don’t want changed, to tell an editor why you’re going against accepted style, to lay the parameters for an editing job that will do what editing is supposed to do: draw the best writing out of you and enhance your story.

Next week I’ll share the template I use for my editing and writing style sheet. Feel free to copy it, adapt it, and use it as you wish. And the next time you turn your manuscript in to an editor, send the style sheet along as well. I’m betting that editor will not only appreciate it, but they’ll use it to add things they want the copyeditors and proofreaders to know. You’ll have made their jobs easier and protected your work all in one fell swoop. Now that’s a win/win.

Right now, though, I’d love to hear your editing stories, whether they’re about an edit you received or one you performed, what’s a lesson you learned from an edit?

I’ll start. Back when I was first writing, I was working for a publisher and had little time to do much of anything beyond my job. I received my galleys, as often happens, with the request to read them and send back any changes within a week. I just didn’t have the time. But I wasn’t worried. I trusted my publisher and editor. I received my copy of my novel the day I left for a writers’ conference. I was busy teaching, so didn’t get much time to look at it. Not until after my class on the most frequent foibles in fiction writing, during which I discussed the reasons to avoid –ly adverbs. There was a section in my book that I wanted to read for my next workshop as an example of the difference between showing and telling. So I flipped it open, started reading the paragraph…and found –ly adverbs.


Yup. Everything I’d told my students not to do was right there, printed for all of eternity. In my novel.

I knew I didn’t put those in there, nor did my editor. So I called the publisher just a little irritated, and discovered that the changes had been made by a new copyeditor. All throughout the book. If I’d read the galley, I would have seen them. I learned two lessons from that: Read the galleys when they come in, and always, always use a style sheet!

Okay, your turn.


29 Responses to Style Sheet: Don’t Let Your Manuscript Leave Home Without It

  1. Avatar
    Jackie Layton November 4, 2015 at 5:21 am #

    Hi Karen,

    I’m sure you were sick when you saw the -ly words. I think the first time I heard you speak, you addressed avoiding those pesky adverbs.

    I can’t wait for next week. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Avatar
    Debra L. Butterfield November 4, 2015 at 6:10 am #

    In some of my first editing jobs I found inconsistently spelled character names and incorrect historical facts, but had no clue as to how the author really wanted to spell that name or whether the incorrect fact was intentional or a lack of research on his/her part. Then I learned about style sheets for writers at a writer’s conference and loved the idea because I knew it would make my job as an editor easier. Now, if I don’t get a style sheet, I often ask for one so I have a ready reference to double check things I find that are inconsistent or in question. Can’t wait to see what your template looks like.

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    Ane Mulligan November 4, 2015 at 6:16 am #

    I have to sing the praises of my editor at LPC, Susan Price. I used a few short, well chosen lines of Portuguese for a character. Susan emailed me and explained what I had used was formal and not what the normal person would use. Guess what? She lived in Portugal for 12 years. I told her to fix them and praised God for pairing us. That was glorious!

    • Avatar
      Karen Ball November 11, 2015 at 11:22 am #

      And that, my friend, is the real beauty of having an editor work with you on your book. Shared experience and knowledge is a wonderful thing.

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    Jan Cline November 4, 2015 at 7:43 am #

    Thank you!!! Can’t wait to see the tool. My biggest problem is with contest judges who correct writers on things that are important elements to the story. Especially when they are judging out of their genre. Like a children’s book author judging historical fiction. I had one like that who judged my Japanese Internment story. There was a line in the piece of manuscript I submitted that talked about my character, who was living in the Internment camp, taking her laundry to the latrine. The judge marked a comment that I had made a big mistake – didn’t I know a latrine was a toilet/bathroom? Yes, I did know. It so happens that the latrine is where these women had to do their laundry and I had mentioned it somewhere else in the story. I’ve had many judges want to change my historical facts. I’ve had an editor question them, but always within an assumption I had done my homework. It would be great to have style sheets for contest judges.

    • Avatar
      Tammy Fish November 4, 2015 at 10:06 am #

      Jan, I’m with you on this. I did not want to complain after receiving the feedback as it was my first contest, but some of the criticism I received was so disappointing, like reprimanding me about using a reference to the Oregon Short Line train. She assumed that I had not done due diligence in my research, but I had…. Oh, well, chance to grow my faith and “consider it all joy”…:)

    • Avatar
      Carol Ashby November 4, 2015 at 5:02 pm #

      I have a more positive experience with a judge’s critical comment about a story element. I had erroneously assumed a dead person would cool off much faster than they do so that finding a supposedly dead person was still warm would be a sign of life. A contest judge pointed out that my timeframe was too short for any detectable difference in temperature. I did some research and actually found a 1956 scientific paper on the rate of cooling of a dead human (amazing what’s out there on the web!), and the judge was absolutely right. It was a critical plot element, too. After talking with an EMT friend and a hunter, I learned the right “sign of life” was the supposedly dead body starting to bleed again when the heroine started to move it. I am deeply indebted to that judge who pointed out my error.

    • Avatar
      Karen Ball November 11, 2015 at 11:24 am #

      I hear you, Jan. But I also know that many of the contests out there have a terrible time finding the number of judges they need, and that often means they have people judging out of their category. One way to ensure that doesn’t happen any longer is for more people to volunteer to judge. So let’s all keep our eyes and hearts open for our opportunities to serve each other that way.

  5. Avatar
    Jay Payleitner November 4, 2015 at 8:07 am #

    A couple quick stories.

    I often include quotes to open and close the short chapters in my relationship books. More than once, my awesome first editor at Harvest House, the late Paul Gossard, pretty much insisted I not use a particular quote. He explained, the quotations may have been worthwhile and accurate, but the writers of the quotes were outspoken atheists and/or mockers. So be warned. (Regretfully, I also recently went back and replaced a couple quotes on fatherhood by Bill Cosby for future print runs.)

    I just turned in a manuscript for the book The Dad Manifesto. Which is also a poster and an idea. In the galleys, sometimes it was italicized (when referring to the book) and sometimes it was not (when referring to the poster or idea.) Sometimes the word “The” was not capitalized. (As in “. . . the Constitution of the United States.”) According to Strunk & White, those edits were absolutely correct. But after a couple emails back and forth, we agreed to italicize it in every instance. Not accurate, but less confusing to the reader and also more visually proactive as we establish the brand.

    • Avatar
      Karen Ball November 11, 2015 at 11:25 am #

      Another great example of the benefit of a solid author/editor relationship. Thanks, Jay!

  6. Avatar
    Mindy Peltier November 4, 2015 at 8:14 am #

    I’ve been involved in a writers group and have attended conferences for seven years and this is the first time I’ve heard about a style sheet. Thank you for this post. I always glean valuable information from this blog.

    I’m writing historical fiction during first century Rome and wanted to use some of the Latin words from the time, names of clothing, weapons, and rooms. Would I include these on a style sheet? Thank you for your time.

    • Avatar
      Karen Ball November 11, 2015 at 11:27 am #

      Yes, Mindy, absolutely! That’s what the style sheet is for, to inform those working on your book and let them know you’ve done your research.

  7. Avatar
    Terri Wangard November 4, 2015 at 8:43 am #

    I hadn’t heard about turning in photos with a style sheet until after I turned in my manuscripts. Sending photos of how I pictured my main characters may have helped with the covers.

    • Avatar
      Karen Ball November 11, 2015 at 11:27 am #

      That’s a great idea, Terri.

  8. Avatar
    Melanie November 4, 2015 at 8:47 am #

    Looking forward to seeing the style sheet….and cannot believe I’ve not seen or heard of such!

  9. Avatar
    Carol Ashby November 4, 2015 at 9:28 am #

    Karen, thanks for bringing the style sheet to the attention of those of us who never heard of one before. It’s going to be invaluable. Some of my characters talk using contractions while others do not. The choice for each is deliberate in establishing the unique voices of the characters. It would be a nightmare to fix a 100K-word manuscript after an editor had arbitrarily decided to make every character speak with contractions or not.

    I’ll be very interested in your answer to Mindy’s question. I’m writing historical novels set in five different provinces of the second-century Roman Empire. I’ve wondered about the best way to deal with Latin and Hebrew terms as well. I have a additioal question that applies for any novel with foreign word usage. Should an author use the correct foreign words with a multipage glossary (ala Francine Rivers), a few foreign words with a short (1-2 page) glossary (ala Lynn Austin), a few foreign words and let the reader guess from context (ala Tracy Higley), or avoid foreign words altogether and use the closest equivalent English word? This is a significant issue for historical (romance or otherwise) since history buffs for that period might consider the use of the English words inauthentic while a general reader might get confused by words the buffs all know and expect. Regardless of the specific approach to a glossary, are there special considerations in developing the style sheet for dealing with foreign or dialect words that different characters use differently?

    Thanks for helping us by posting about one more key tool for writers. I look forward to finding a new nugget of knowledge about the craft here each Wednesday.

    • Avatar
      Karen Ball November 11, 2015 at 11:33 am #

      Carol, it’s a question of author preference, genre, and consideration for the reader. If, indeed, your primary readers are history buffs who want totally authentic language, then you have to take that into consideration. But if those readers are only a small portion of your audience, then include as much as you need to create your story world, but not so much that the majority of your readers won’t be able to understand what on earth your characters are saying.

      As for using a glossary, I usually suggest it when you have a lot of words/phrases unfamiliar to your primary readers.

  10. Avatar
    Tammy Fish November 4, 2015 at 9:59 am #

    So helpful. I look forward to printing a copy of your Style Sheet. Within seconds I realized what an advantage this would be for the editor and me as we move forward in the editing process. One example that jumps to mind is when I inserted the lyrics to “America, the Beautiful” in a chapter. I refer to the words as originating from a poem because in 1898, the song did not exist. Also, later in the novel, I copy words to a hymn, but the words again are unfamiliar because they had not yet been changed to the lyrics we use today. I can see how time consuming this could be for both parties if left unaddressed. Great idea; thanks again.

  11. Avatar
    Ellen Stumbo November 4, 2015 at 2:01 pm #

    My experience did not happen with a book (working on that though!) but on a popular Christian written and online magazine. I write about disability, and when I saw my article published they edited all my “person first” language. So for example, they called my daughter a “Down syndrome baby” rather than “A baby with Down syndrome.” This is a big deal in the disability community, and I am a strong advocate of people first language (I even go to schools and teach kids about this) and here was an article, with my name and story that failed to use people first language. Small issue, but guess what, some of the comments left were things like, “Wish the author knew about people first language.”
    Second time, they changed a pretty significant part of my story, my personal story. I don’t know if they thought it was not Christian enough, or pretty, I will never know the reason other than they changed it. I speak quite a bit, and this is part of what I share (I even shared this at a JOT Writer’s Conference when speaking about vulnerability). But now I have a published piece in a popular Christian magazine that actually says the contrary. It negates such an intimate part of my journey and it really bothers me till this day.
    Third time, I got the article and I am not sure I even wrote one word of the article!
    I spoke to one of the editors and he said the articles go through so many different editors, even if one gets the message, it does not mean the last guy will. Needless to say, I have not submitted pieces to them again.

    • Avatar
      Karen Ball November 11, 2015 at 11:44 am #

      Ellen, not a small issue at all. And this is exactly what a style sheet should help you avoid. If not a full style sheet, then at least a note at the top of the article to the editor stating exactly what you told us, that the disability community judges a writer’s knowledge by the proper use of “person first” language so please don’t change it as doing so will diminish the community’s regard not only for you and your article, but for the magazine.

      I, too, submitted an article to a well known magazine that was based on my life experiences as a PK (pastor’s kid, for the uninitiated). The article was on Christmas traditions and how they made the Christmas season so special. When the article came out, I discovered that the first line had been changed to something like, “Through all the moves we went through in my childhood, our Christmas traditions stayed the same.” Well, just one problem. We didn’t move. Ever. My dad’s dad was an itinerant pastor, and they moved all the time. Dad prayed that he wouldn’t have to do that to his family, and God granted that prayer. Dad and mom pastored the same little church for 45 years! I contacted the magazine, and they said, “But all pastors move every few years.” After a bit of um…debate, let’s say…from me, they printed a correction at the front of the next issue explaining how editorial changes had been made to the article without the author’s approval and they apologized for any confusion it had caused. That was a good 30 years ago, and it still bugs me. So yeah, not a small thing at all. And don’t I wish I’d included a style sheet with details back then!

  12. Avatar
    Peter DeHaan November 5, 2015 at 4:34 pm #

    What a great idea. I can’t want to see your style sheet.

  13. Avatar
    Page Traynor November 5, 2015 at 10:04 pm #

    This article is fascinating and I have enjoyed and learned from reading the comments. I am looking forward to the style sheet.

    • Avatar
      Karen Ball November 11, 2015 at 11:45 am #

      Thanks, Page! Glad you stopped by.

  14. Avatar
    Anastasia Burtch November 7, 2015 at 5:43 pm #

    Thanks for sharing. I can’t wait to see your style sheet.
    I recently hired a professional editor to go over my first novel. She loves my book (her words). However, she made sure every sentence have subject, verb and object. I’m not a native English speaker, but COME ON!

    • Avatar
      Karen Ball November 11, 2015 at 11:46 am #

      There’s always a balance between what’s accurate English usage and what works in fiction, isn’t there? Hope the style sheet helps avoid problems in the future.

  15. Avatar
    Mary Hawkins November 13, 2015 at 11:42 pm #

    Karen, are style sheets relatively “new”? I have not heard of them being received well by editors before. I sure wish I had known many years ago now when I had a major problem with a manuscript.

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