Copyediting and Proofreading: Lesson 2: Style Guides and Style Sheets


An anal retentive’s best friend

Style sheets and style guides are essential tools of any copyeditor or proofreader, used to ensure the constancy of any written work. In other words, they keep you using the same spelling of a word when multiple spellings are correct, keep you using the same choice of abbreviations and/or spelling when it comes to presenting numerics, and generally maintain the consistency of writing.

Style Guides

Also referred to as books of style or manuals of style, style guides are written works laying down clear guidelines for the proofreading and copyediting of a work. Examples of acceptable spellings, typography, punctuation, and word usage are a matter of course.

There are many different style guides to choose from, each with their own intended purpose, some for fiction, others for journalism, and yet more for scientific and non-fiction publications.

Following is a short listing of the more popular style guides in existence. Some publishing houses have a preferred style guide you may be required to use. Yet others expect you to know the merits and intended uses of each and make your own choice before copyediting a work. It should be noted that when proofreading, the style guide has already been chosen for you by the copyeditor who went through the original work long before it crossed your desk.

MLA Handbook (Modern Language Association): This style guide is probably well known to anyone who’s attended a college in the United States, as it is the preferred manual for generalized research papers and theses. First produced in 1977, it is very sparse in regards to instruction on spelling preferences, punctuation, and grammar. Instead, it focuses on author-titled in-text citations presented in parentheses prior to a period’s full stop (Giraldi, pg 27). Likewise, the bibliography to follow the actual written work is quite extensive, with separate rules for online sources, periodicals, books, and newspapers; the intended purpose being to allow a student’s instructor to track down the mentioned works if plagiarism or falsification is suspected.

Chicago Manual of Style: This is technically not the same as Turabian style; Turabian was printed a number of years later. However, people don’t make the distinction because the actual rules of the style guides are virtually indistinguishable. In my opinion, this is simply a case of information regurgitation, wherein a writer simply takes an article of body of work already produced and rewords it… And there are a lot of hubbers out there right now who are probably quite red-faced. This is only natural as it just means they’re not so hypocritical to fail to realize they have done this as well. It’s OK. I’m fairly certain regurgitation is 95% of writing these days, but I digress. Chicago style is a general-purpose manual used by academics, journals, magazines, and newspapers of all kinds throughout the US. Its rules are comprehensive, again focusing on citation over presentation, and at times can be a little esoteric and excessive. Rather than citing sources in-text, it uses footnotes at the base of all pertinent pages which are more in-depth versions of the bibliography to follow.

American Psychological Association Manual of Style: As someone once published in the American Psychological Association quarterly Journal, I’ve had much more experience with APA style than I wish I did. Ostensibly it’s MLA style with several addendums for the purpose of charts, spreadsheets, and graphs to ensure psychologists haven’t massaged the numbers from their studies in order to lend undue support to their hypotheses.

Elements of Style: Also known as “Strunk and White” after the authors, this is one of the first effective style guides intended toward writers of fiction. Most writers own a copy, if not for what information it contains than for a good laugh. It’s a chapbook barely 105 pages in length and has not aged particularly well, seeing as it was written 1919. The preferred modes of narrative change over time, you see, and some of the advice found within its pages is ludicrously outdated. Still, there’s a strong vein of common sense to be found throughout, and if you can divine it, you may come out both a better writer and editor for your trouble.

There are dozens of specialized style guides and many more intended for use internationally or in other English-speaking countries. It is not expected that you understand them all. If you should manage to take work as a copyeditor or proofreader, just keeping a pertinent copy close is sufficient.

Still, if curiosity should spur you onward, links for more style guides are provided below.

Style Sheets

If style guides are the heavy, dull battleaxe of the law, style sheets (also called specification sheets) are the precise scalpel of reason. It addresses minor issues on a case-by-case basis. For example, you’re copyediting a work and you find the author has spelled a word in two different ways: “grey” and “gray”. You look it up and find that both spellings are technically correct, and your style guide makes no mention of it.

That’s where your style sheet comes in. It lists the preferred spelling of every questionable word, among other things, so you can ensure consistency throughout the written work. What’s more, a style sheet can help you copyedit and proofread an entire series, as differences in presentation from one book to the next can really make a series seem unprofessional. How can a simple sheet cover everything, you ask? Simple. You’re in charge of creating it.

As a copyeditor, it will be your job to create and hand tailor a style sheet for every written work that you are entrusted with. Once created and employed to mark a work, both written work and sheet are given back to the author so he/she will know why you’ve suggested all the changes that you have. Following that, the sheet is passed on to the proofreader, again to ensure that everyone is on the same page. Style sheets act as a crucial part of the communication between all the people working on a written piece. Without it, you end up acting at cross-purposes, and this will lead to a shabby end product.

It should be noted that style sheets are not always required, especially if you’re editing and proofreading your own writing, but they can make your work quicker and more efficient because you are not constantly having to go back to your manuscript in cold sweats, having remembered you spelled something two different ways in places more than 60 pages apart. As to how to make a style sheet, that’s the subject of our next lesson.

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LiftedUp 5 years ago from Plains of Colorado

Ooh, I like that information on style sheets. I have had some questions as to how some of the word spellings, etc. are handled. Again, thanks.

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