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  • Jess Lawrence

What is a style guide?

What is a style guide?

Have you ever read back through one of your own drafts and realised that Michael had blue eyes on page 3, but Sarah is looking into his ‘green eyes’ on page 80? Or maybe Stephen becomes Steven and then Stephan. Or perhaps you’ve been staring at an ellipsis for five minutes wondering if it’s supposed to have a space before, after or both.


The best way to manage such things is with a style guide. A style guide is a document that tracks all stylistic decisions for a publication. It can save you a lot of hassle as you write and edit your work – particularly if you plan to write a series – because it’s a record of things like how you’ve spelled certain characters’ names or what words you’ve chosen to capitalise or not.


Publishing houses usually have their own style guide, although most are based on the standard, well-known style guides such as Oxford (New Hart’s Rules) or Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS).


What is in a style guide?

The more well-known style guides are very extensive, covering everything from spacing after certain punctuation through to formatting abbreviations and titles. They can be incredibly granular, or quite broad, but generally they track details like:


  • Grammar and punctuation

    • Use of the Oxford comma or not

    • Styling of ellipses

    • UK, US or Canadian spelling as standard

    • Hyphenation choices

  • Formatting

    • How scene breaks are styled

    • Indentation preferences

    • En-dash or em-dash

    • Single or double quotes for speech

    • Use of italics

    • How dates and times are formatted

  • Character and world-building

    • Character names

    • Place names

    • Backstories

    • Relationships and connections

    • Lore details

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What are the benefits of a style guide?

As I mentioned in the introduction, the primary use for a style guide is to ensure consistency. In cases like the ellipsis and how it ought to be spaced, while some publishers will have their own preference, there is no actual right or wrong style, so as you’re drafting, it’s only important that you make a decision and stick with it.


You might decide to keep your ellipsis unspaced (This is…what that looks like), so you note this down in your style guide, and every time you get to an ellipsis, you know how to style it. Where this is extra helpful is when you go on to work with an editor – if you can provide them with a style guide, when they spot an inconsistency, they can check your guide, see what your preference is and make the necessary change.


But why does this matter, really? Well, aside from making your editor’s life easier, consistency is incredibly important. Character names changing mid-way through or Random Acts of Capitalisation give the appearance that you haven’t checked your writing (or had it checked by someone else) before putting it out in the world. The story you end up sharing is never going to be 100% perfect, but ensuring consistency on a small scale is absolutely achievable.


When it comes to writing sci-fi and fantasy, style guides are even more helpful, because you can track any invented spellings or important lore details. In a manuscript with 100k plus words, it can be hard to remember what you named your secret society or the Important Doodah that will save or end the world. And when you’ve reached Book 3 in the series and you need to remember the name of the character you killed off but want to bring back as a surprise, you don’t need to trawl back through the first manuscript – you can just check the style guide!

How to create your own style guide

If you’ve ever looked at the Chicago Manual of Style or New Hart’s Rules, they can be a bit intimidating. There is so much within those guides, almost too much for the average writer to worry about. So let’s start there – don’t worry about it! Style guides are supposed to be helpful, which means they have to work for you.


When I’m creating style guides for my authors, I tend to start by tracking details in a Google Spreadsheet, mostly because I use the same sheet to track word count etc. I create columns with headings like ‘Spelling’, ‘Formatting’, and ‘Capitalisation’, and every time I make a decision that fits under those headings, I jot it down. When I’m done, I transfer all the information over into a Word document, which is a little easier for the author to read. If you want to create your own style guide, do it in whatever way you’ll find most useful – that might be a spreadsheet, like me, or even pen and paper.


Next, I know I’ve mentioned how daunting CMOS and the like can be, but it is worth having a flick through a professional style guide, just to get an idea of what you should be tracking. The items I listed above are a good jumping off point, but there will be many things you didn’t even think was something editors check (such as whether to capitalise ‘the’ in newspaper titles or boats, or whether to style times as ‘3am’ or ‘3 am’ or 3 a.m’).


You don’t have to get every detail noted down while you’re drafting, either. You can absolutely start crafting your style guide, or building on it, once you jump into your revisions. By that point, you’ll be paying closer attention to the line-by-line anyway, rather than focusing on simply getting the story written.


Lesser-known gem

Style guides are the lesser-know gem of the writer’s toolkit. The value they can add is vast compared to the effort required to create one, and not only will they help you ensure consistency across the manuscript, and even across a whole series, but they will also force you to think about these smaller details of writing that play a surprisingly big part. When you focus on these finer points, it shows in the story as a whole, and the reader will be able to see that effort.


And remember, you don’t have to go creating our own version of CMOS right off the bat. Start small, tracking the points you want to keep on top of, and let the process grow from there.



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