Let’s start with a brief definition: a stylesheet is a document that records your decisions as an author.
To really over-simplify, your book consists of two major components: the Big Picture (structure, etc), and the Nuts and Bolts (words and details).
Stylesheet questions include your language decisions:
- UK or US English?
- Do you want to show a character’s thought in italics?
- Do any characters use specific dialects?
…and it goes on. You have a space to record your character names, significant traits, places; this helps with consistency throughout the book.
I first came across this tool when I began editing. At the start of an editing job I prepare a stylesheet and fill it in: partly before beginning editing, partly as I go. I send the completed document to my author along with their edited manuscript so they can see why I’ve made my recommendations.
For editing, this is an absolute MUST-HAVE.
While it’s an essential document for editing, why wait until you’re done with the first (or even second, or third) draft to produce the stylesheet?
Why not use it right from the start of your book?
Yes, it saves time and effort when you come to edit – whether that’s for yourself or for your editor. But why not begin to use it as a tool during your writing?
Now what I’m absolutely not advocating is editing as you go. I’m suggesting you use this alongside your writing but the writing comes first. Get that draft out of your head and onto the paper. I’m particularly looking at you, Pantsers.
But consider… what if you make a quick note, in a specific place, of a new character so that next time you reference that character you don’t have to wrack your brain to remember what you called them?
What if you could confidently set your next scene in Villians, Inc. HQ because you took a second to note the location when you first thought of it?
What if the business memoir you’re writing ends up in a jumble because you didn’t note down that your life-changing interview took place on 10 April 1999?
It isn’t a research file
At some point, you’ll do more detailed research on your characters, places, events. A stylesheet is not a research file. You might have a folder for your main character that contains sub-folders or family trees or a full unabridged biography (that took longer to write than the actual novel).
The stylesheet is one document – a guide for keeping you on the right track. It can act as the start of your research files, but it doesn’t replace them. That’s the track to Procrastination Town; it’s the opposite of what we’re doing here, which is to get details out of your head onto paper so you can reference them quickly and efficiently whenever you want during your writing process. Free up the grey matter for your book.
How do I set one up?
You’re in luck. I’ve done all the hard work for you in a Word doc based on the stylesheet I use with my editing clients and you can download it for FREE from here:
Make a copy so that you have a master file. Then simply fill out the information as you work.
If you’re a Plotter or write non-fiction you’ll find it helpful to start using this right from the beginning. Use it alongside your preferred planning method.
If you’re a Pantser you may feel as though this is too much of a constraint… and boy do I hear you. It’s still worth having it ready for the book you’re working on, though. Even just checking in after a writing session to make sure you’re on track with names and places will be a habit you’re grateful for down the line. [Ed. note: And so will your editor.]
Once you’ve downloaded the file it’s yours to customise as much as you want – add or remove sections as you discover your own rhythm and process.