Writing – and editing – with style

Whenever you write, you’re making style decisions.

Sometimes they’re big decisions, which affect a whole book or website: will I use US spellings or Australian ones? Sometimes they’re small ones: is haute cuisine a foreign term to be italicised, or has it become an English one? Sometimes they’re made for you – if you’re writing a thesis, your university or department is likely to specify the referencing system you are to use.

If you want to be consistent – and consistency makes life easier for your readers, so you probably do – you’ll find an editorial style sheet useful.

Why write them down?

Recording your style decisions means that you don’t need to make them more than once.

Most editors create a style sheet for each job as a matter of course. As a writer, you can save time for your editor – and potentially money for you – by creating your own style sheet. When you get your work edited, your editor will know what decisions you have already made. Even if you’re just reviewing your own work, your style sheet gives you a valuable starting point.

This website has quite a small style sheet.

Start with the big picture

Start by identifying the work to which the style sheet will apply. When I’m creating an editorial style sheet for someone else’s work, I always start with the title and the author or primary contact’s name.

Next, decide on a primary dictionary and style guide. For Australian authors, this usually means the Macquarie Dictionary and Snooks & Co’s Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers, 6th edition (although the Style Manual is well overdue for revision).

For academic work, identify the referencing system, as well as any modifications used within your particular school or discipline – individual universities often have their own quirks.

Dive into the details

The next section of your style sheet records decisions that are either:

  • consistent with your style guide, but particularly important (it’s easier to refer to a two-page style sheet than the 550-page Style Manual) or
  • inconsistent with your style guide – for example, you’ve decided to use a comma in numbers from 1,000 rather than the Style Manual’s space from 10 000.

Depending on what you’re writing, you may need to record decisions about:

  • capitalisation – will headings use sentence case (capitalising the first letter only) or title case (capitalising the main words)?
  • punctuation – will you use or omit the serial comma?
  • dates, times and other numbers
  • measurements
  • abbreviations.

Finally, record individual words or phrases that require special attention:

  • names of people, places, businesses, particularly those with unusual capitalisation or spelling (MasterChef)
  • technical terms (in a bird book, my style sheet included the correct English and Latin names of every bird mentioned)
  • names of positions or programs, particularly in bureaucratic documents, that require special treatment (Child Safety Officer, Moving On Program).

Keep it current

I work on twin monitors, so it’s easy for me to keep my style sheet open on one screen while I work on a document on the other. If you don’t have that luxury, you can keep swapping between documents, or print your style sheet out and annotate it whenever you make another style decision.

Maintain your style sheet carefully: it will help you to write with style.

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