by Ruth Harris
The style sheet is a writer’s secret power — and best friend.
A style sheet will save you time, frustration, and money.
A style sheet will save you from yourself and prevent you from making the kind of mistakes that will send readers fleeing and guarantee one-star reviews.
If you’re writing a book — fiction or non-fiction — (or a short story or a novella and especially a series), you need a style sheet.
If you plan to self-pub, a style sheet will save your sanity while you’re writing — and after because a style sheet will save you time and money when you hire an editor.
And if you’re interested in going Trad, you’ll want to have a style sheet, too. Publishers have cut back staffs and copyediting and proofreading, like a lot of things, ain’t what they used to be.
What exactly is a style sheet?
In case you don’t know what a style sheet is and maybe have never even heard of one, a style sheet is basically a list. It’s a handy way to keep track of all the important data—names, addresses, dates, people and places—in your manuscript.
Creating a style sheet is straightforward: the first time a character or place name (or any other data) is mentioned, add it to a list. That list is your style sheet. Simple as that.
Your style sheet is a road map
It’s a map to the people and places in your book, a quality-control tool that provides coherence and consistency.
Analogous to continuity in a movie, your style sheet will ensure, among other things, that your characters don’t suddenly change names, locations, marital status, gender ID, political affiliation — or worse — in the middle of your novel. Trust me, it happens.
People — the names, the addresses, the hairdo’s
Your MC is James Q. Black. You don’t want him suddenly to become Jimmy Z. Brown and confuse the hell out of your reader or the agent or editor you’re trying to sell.
- You want to make certain your reader, potential agent or publisher, knows exactly which character is facing an attack by alien hordes while dangling off the edge of a cliff by the fingertips.
- Is it James Q. or Jimmy Z, or, god forbid, Jane Z.? Better make it clear because a reader / agent / publisher who can’t figure out who’s doing what to who or what’s going on where will give up. Sale loss. Deal goes bye-bye.
Brief character descriptions ensure that:
- A blonde will stay blonde (unless a change in hair color is critical to the plot).
- The six foot five inch tall zombie is six feet five inches tall, not five feet six inches tall.
- A guy’s crew cut remains a crew cut, and does not inexplicitly and out of the blue become a ponytail or a man bun.
- The MC’s dog does not suddenly become a cat. Or a rare, deadly viper from the jungles of Borneo.
- A scar on the right side of your gunslinger’s face stays on the right side, doesn’t wander over to the left or completely disappear (at least not without a credible explanation).
Your style sheet will save you from the insults of memory—and from yourself.
- Your heroine, Suzie Smith, lives at 21 Main Street. Add Suzie Smith and her address to your style sheet. Will save you from calling her Suzy Smith a few chapters later and makes sure you refer to her address as 21 Main Street. Not twenty-one Main Street. And certainly not 22 Maine Avenue..
- Suzie’s bff, Marianne, works at Lulu’s Bakery. Add Marianne and Lulu’s Bakery to your style sheet. Because if you don’t, you risk glitches like: Mary Ann? Who’s dat and what’s she doing in this story? Loulou’s Bakery? Which bakery is this and what’s it doing in this story?
- Bottom line: Is a confused reader a reader who’s going to love bomb you with a five-star review?
Style sheets how-tos.
- Katherine O’Moore-Klopf of KOK edit shares a pro’s detailed and helpful pdf of a Pocket Books style sheet. You can—and should—adopt it to your own preferences.
- Deanna Hoak, star sf/f copyeditor of award-winning bestsellers, discusses the importance of style sheets.
- Thanks to copywriter and marketer Sara Lancaster for her FREE downloadable template.
Style guide or style sheet. There’s a difference?
Well, yeah, although IRL there is overlap. Generally speaking, though, for the writer a style sheet is an informal list that keeps track of the people and places.
A style guide, OTOH, is more like a manual. Some publishers provide a style guide, a sort of house rules for writers.
- The New York Times Style Guide ($13)
- An entertaining consideration of the difference between a diaeresis and an umlaut (don’t forget the diphthong!) in The New Yorker.
- This FREE download of Fowler’s Modern English Usage covers grammar, syntax, style, word choice, and advice on usage.
- How to choose a style guide.
- William Strunk’s classic The Elements Of Style FREE download.
Writer style and why you should have your own.
What did Audrey Hepburn do that no one else did—or could do? She looked like herself. On purpose. Period.
Barbra Streisand, Diana Vreeland and Tilda Swinton are other examples. Among the men, think Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerman of hoodie fame.
People who become style icons don’t look like anyone else. They look like themselves and no one else. So do writers with style.
They are unique and instantly identifiable. They understand that the key to standing out is to work with what they have and to be the best version of themselves. On purpose.
In the tsunami / avalanche / crap ton of books being published and a flattening market, the big question is: how can your book stand out?
Style is how. Style is not fashion and style is not some fad that’s here today, gone tomorrow. Real style is enduring, unique, recognizable, desirable and, most of all, authentic.
For a writer, style is writing like yourself. On purpose.
Consider Elmore Leonard and Ernest Hemingway, Tom Wolfe, Jackie Collins, Janet Evanovich, Robert B. Parker, and Raymond Chandler: each one has developed an immediately recognizable style.
Finding your own style takes time and, with experience, the building of confidence. Which doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Or, even worse, no fun.
Stephen King has an answer to the question of why developing a style of your own can be difficult: “Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation.”
When you write, are you afraid of what critics / your Mom / a reviewer / your crit group will say? Do you feel pressured to prove to the world how talented you are and how brilliant your prose? Are you trying to impress a Paris Review critic or your high school English teacher?
Do you shrink from ideas that seem too far out?
Or too freaky / too scary / too ordinary / too done-to-death? You know what I mean: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. You don’t want to write that.
Or do you?
After all, romance is the most popular genre and writers are constantly expanding and redefining its boundaries.
Are you holding yourself back from developing a unique style because you’re afraid? Of what? Of the nay-saying phantoms in your head? What “people” will say? Do you cringe from imagined hostile reviews?
Are you suffering plot blocks or are you wasting time procrastinating because you’re afraid of what people you don’t even know much less even care about are going to think?
But, you say, if I let go, if I indulge my nuttiest, weirdest, furthest-out or done-a-million-times idea, people will laugh at me, sneer at me, think I’m crazy, call me untalented.
Well, maybe nothing.
Or — maybe — fame and fortune.
- Jackson Pollock was ridiculed and called “Jack the Dripper” when his paintings were first shown. Now they’re worth millions.
- Picasso’s Cubist paintings were once considered “shocking.” Now museums display them with pride.
- Elvis Presley was considered “vulgar” and his performances were censored and even cancelled because, back in the 1950’s when he started out, he was said to be a threat to the morals of American youth.
- And let’s not even go into all the huge bestsellers (Harry Potter, anyone?) that were rejected multiple times before finding their readers.
Mahatma Gandhi reduced the outraged, you-can’t-do-that reactions to a formula: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”
How do you develop a style of your own?
The obvious answer is that a writer must face his or her fears. Booze is popular. So is chocolate. But, honestly, don’t both seem a bit passé in this time of organic, grass fed, artisanal, gluten-free Everything?
The advice of an in-demand sports psychologist suggests a different approach. Why not accentuate the positive? Why not conquer fear with confidence?
The psychologist’s theory is that if a golfer is a good putter, s/he should practice putting until s/he becomes a superb putter? This expert’s approach was not to focus on correcting an athlete’s weaknesses, but on polishing his/her strengths.
Writers can take the same approach: write what you’re good at. Then hone it, buff it, polish it.
As you purposely practice what you already do well—narrative, dialogue, characterization, humor, horror, thrills, romance—you’ll will recognize a style emerge that is uniquely yours. It will be as individual as a fingerprint, as recognizable as Streisand, Tilda or Audrey and you will develop it by doing what you like best—and by taking advantage of what you’re already good at.
Simple, obvious, and, now that we have a way to recognize and burnish it, eminently do-able.
Because, like many of the best things in life, style is FREE.
by Ruth Harris (@RuthHarrisBooks) May 30, 2021
What about you, scriveners? Do you use a style sheet? Did you know the difference between a style sheet and a style guide? Have you developed a unique style, or are you still working on it?
BOOK OF THE WEEK
“WOW! WHAT A STORY!”
“A master storyteller coaxed me through a maze of fascinating, brilliant, tragic, and heartwarming twists and turns, and left me feeling uplifted and satisfied. ZURI slides to the top of my favorite books of 2020!” —Sue Coletta, award-winning, bestselling author
They rescue endangered animals, but can they rescue each other?
Renny Kudrow, Director of the Kihali animal orphanage in Kenya, is a renowned elephant whisperer, a brilliant translator of animal communication. But human communication?
Not so much, thinks Starlite Higgins, the wildlife vet who Renny thinks is not up to the job.
Renny is prickly, remote, critical, and Starlite, accustomed to success, but who almost causes Zuri’s rescue to fail, is unable to win his approval.
When Renny and Starlite must work together to save the life of the baby rhino fatally wounded by poachers, they must face the shocking secrets they both hide—and the attraction they can no longer deny.
And here’s what Amazon readers are saying:
5 out of 5 stars Thoroughly enjoyed it!
Really enjoyed this sweet but important novella about a director of an African animal orphanage and a vet’s struggle to save an injured rhino calf after its mother is brutally murdered by poachers. On one level the story is a tender glimpse into the intelligent world of animals; on another it’s an expose of the tragic world of poaching and the wildlife it endangers. Add to that an engaging love story between the protagonists, and you have a delightful way to spend a few hours.
5 out of 5 stars Wow, What a Story!
The beginning cut deep. I feared and worried during the middle, and cried happy tears at the end. A master storyteller coaxed me through a maze of fascinating, brilliant, tragic, and heartwarming twists and turns and left me feeling uplifted and satisfied, but yearning for more of the lovable Zuri, quirky Boozie, majestic Maise, and the delightful Renny and Starlight. I hope there’s a sequel! ZURI slides to the top of my favorite books of 2020!