The Difference between a Style Guide and a Style Sheet

All you need to know about the style resources used by copyeditors when working on your manuscript.
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If you are the author of an academic article, book, or essay, you will likely have come across a number of different style manuals or guides—usually produced by publishers or journals with the rules they expect you to follow. Style manuals like Chicago, MLA, and APA offer extensive guidelines and your publisher’s style guide will include variations on those rules based on the particularities of your field. However, the style sheet is a slightly more elusive creature. 

Often created by a copyeditor, a style sheet essentially describes all the rules that your particular manuscript follows, as well as all the choices your editor made while working on it. It will usually start off with information about the style manual the project conforms to and the dictionary it uses, and it may link to your publisher’s guide. After that, the style sheet becomes more detailed and is tailored to your work. 

You or an editor can produce a style sheet for texts of any length and any genre, but the longer the project, the more important a style sheet becomes. It is an incredibly helpful organizational tool that will lead to consistent usage and more polished published research. 

Why Does My Project Need a Style Sheet? 

In a word, consistency. The style sheet is a place to keep track of writing and editing decisions and make sure that there is no variation in how terms and names are spelled and styled, that punctuation rules are enforced in the same way throughout hundreds of pages, and that the formatting of the document is uniform.

Why is a style guide not enough? Editing is often about making judgment calls: Chicago and Merriam-Webster often disagree! For example, Chicago strongly prefers a closed hyphenation style (with no hyphen dividing a prefix from a word), so its hyphenation guide tells us to use the spelling posttraumatic. Merriam-Webster has post-traumatic with the unhyphenated version as a less common variant. Whichever spelling you choose, you want to make sure it’s consistent every time the word appears. Mid-century or midcentury? Copyeditor or copy editor? 

The style sheet is a record of these judgment calls and ensures that you, your editors, your proofreader, and anyone else who works on the text along the way are all on the same page, so if someone spots a missing series comma, they know it’s okay to add it because that’s the style your project uses. 

In the case of specialized academic texts, style manuals and guides may not provide the answer for how a term should appear. Your research is unique. It may include technical terms, phrases in multiple languages, names of organizations and movements, or citations of unusual kinds of material. You may have coined theoretical or critical terms. The way those words, phrases, and sources are treated can vary widely. Should theoretical terms or historical movements be capitalized, in quotes, italicized if they’re not in English? How they appear in your published research is a choice you and your editors will make, and a copyeditor will make sure that these rules are enforced throughout.

Who Creates the Style Sheet? 

If checking for hyphenated prefixes and consistently bracketed translations throughout your entire manuscript seems overwhelming or just not fun, fear not! Copyeditors can ease this burden and create a style sheet for your project and enforce its rules throughout. Flatpage’s editors always provide you with a style sheet as part of their copyediting services. 

That doesn’t mean you don’t have a say: as the author, you are the expert on your manuscript and the terms and concepts you employ. You may choose to send your editor a list of common terms or some guidelines about how you want certain words to appear. They will then expand on that original document and make sure you’re following your own rules. 

Once you see the organizational power of a style sheet and how it can lead to a more polished, professional final manuscript, you may want to start building one at the start of each new project. It is a living document, and it can be useful to make a note of style decisions you’re unsure of or want feedback on. 

While the content of style guides is not meant to be flexible, the content of your style sheet will evolve throughout the editorial process—it shows you what stylistic and editorial decisions have been made in case you need to adjust them later. 

What’s on It?

If you’re looking to begin building a sheet for your own project, or want to know what to expect from a copyeditor, these are some of the elements that commonly appear on a style sheet:

  • Information on what style manual and/or guide and what dictionary to consult.
  • Notes on how certain types of words or information should be treated.
    • Do you use full or abbreviated page ranges?
    • When do you use roman or arabic numerals and when do you spell out numbers?
    • Do you use footnotes or endnotes? 
    • Do you use the Oxford (serial) comma in lists?
    • When do you use en dashes, and when do you use em dashes? 
    • How are image captions, epigraphs, and section headings styled? 
    • How are translations of quotations or titles styled? 
  • A word list, organized alphabetically, of terms that are unique to your project or that have potential variations in spelling or styling (capitalization, italics, quotation marks, etc.). 
  • Samples of how to cite different kinds of sources on your works cited page (books chapters, journal articles, websites, etc.). If you cite nontraditional sources (tweets, online videos) or archival sources, this is a particularly helpful section of the guide. 

Whether you’re the author of a scholarly article or academic book, or the editor of a collection of essays or a special issue, a style sheet can lead to a polished finished product and ultimately save you time and make your writing life a little easier.

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About the author

Tess C. Rankin is an editor, proofreader, and Spanish-English translator. As managing editor of the Journal of Spanish Cultural Studies, she developed a style guide for authors writing in English and Spanish. As a freelance editor and copyeditor at Flatpage, she regularly builds style sheets for her clients in the arts and humanities for their edited collections, monographs, articles, and essays.

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