Editing the editor: style sheets

It’s easy to understand how a book’s style sheet can fall off a copy editor’s priority list in the rush to meet a deadline—and how tempting it can be simply to alphabetize the word list and send it in. But I’d like to argue that editing a style sheet is just as important as creating it.

Indexers understand that up to half of the time spent indexing is devoted to editing the draft index—ensuring consistency in entry structure, eliminating wordiness and unnecessary entries and subentries, correcting spelling errors, etc.—to make the final product as useful as possible to the reader. An index and a book’s style sheet have a lot in common; in fact, the word list of a style sheet could almost be considered a most basic, preliminary proper noun index, without the page numbers, so it’s not surprising that a lot of the simple editing techniques for the index could also be applied to the style sheet to produce a more polished product.

But why bother? After all, doesn’t the style sheet have a very limited lifetime and an even more limited audience? To address this question, we’ll have to look at the style sheet’s end-users:

  • The author. I always include a copy of the style sheet when I send an edited manuscript to an author, because I feel that it’s foundational to good author relations. Not all authors will look at style sheets, but those that do read them carefully, and presenting a well-edited, consistent style sheet helps authors understand that you aren’t just making arbitrary changes to their text. Conversely, a poorly organized style sheet could potentially torpedo an attentive author’s confidence in his or her editor’s competence.
  • You—the copy editor. When the author returns the copy-edited manuscript, you’ll have to refer to and update the style sheet. Why not make it easier for yourself?
  • The proofreader. This person will undoubtedly use your style sheet the most. An inconsistent, disorganized, or contradictory style sheet can be an enormous source of frustration for a proofreader, as it leads to a lot of duplicated fact-checking work. Think about how a proofreader will use your word list, and refrain from the (indexing!) sin of overclassification: there’s no need to divide your lists into names of people, names of places, names of organizations, etc.; in such a case, the proofreader has to pause, decide what category a term falls under, then find it in an alphabetized sublist, whereas a single alphabetized list makes confirming a word or term simpler and easier. Even if you and perhaps the author find the classification helpful, a proofreader will probably prefer the single master list.
  • The indexer. As an indexer, I rarely import the style sheet directly into an index, but I do use it to double-check the spelling of my entries and confirm the style for the wording of headnotes and subentries. I’ll also look through the style sheet to ensure that I haven’t missed any important names or topics. (Importing the style sheet word list into an indexing program isn’t something I’m fundamentally opposed to—it’s just something I’ve never tried. For a proper noun index, doing something like this may significantly expedite the indexing process.)
  • Any member of the editorial team that may have to work on a new edition of the book, a spinoff, or a new book within the same series. Here is where a style sheet can have a much longer lifetime than just the production cycle of the book. Think about the editor who will have to use the style sheet when writing cover copy for a new format reprint or the editor who has to work on a revised edition. A well-organized style sheet can be a major time saver in these situations, where sometimes the fact that these books are “just revisions” means that they aren’t allotted much time in the schedule.

All of this is not to say that my style sheets are always (or ever) perfect. But I feel that at a minimum, a copy editor should do the following after alphabetizing the word list:

  • Go through the list and cull duplicate entries. This exercise not only eliminates redundancy, but it can also help identify missed inconsistencies and errors, particularly if you notice two distinct entries that you think ought to be the same.
  • Run a spell check. This process can be slow, since a style sheet is typically loaded with names that don’t appear in a word processor’s dictionary, but it’s helpful in identifying not only spelling errors within the style sheet itself but also in the manuscript, essentially forcing you to pause and double-check your fact checking.
  • Spot check a handful of entries against the manuscript. Using judgment, do global searches for a selection of style decisions, especially those that can have variants in spelling, hyphenation, or capitalization—and those entries that just look kind of funny and that you’d like to confirm.

Another strategy, given the similarities between style sheet word lists and indexes, that I haven’t yet attempted (and that non-indexer editors will probably not want to try), is to use indexing software to create and maintain the style sheet. In theory doing so would eliminate the duplicate-entry problem; facilitate cross-references within the word list; allow for special glyphs, such as initial punctuation, without throwing off the alphabetization; and may allow errors to be identified earlier on, since the word list can be sorted and resorted in a number of ways, including alphabetically and by order of entry, that may highlight inconsistencies. I’ll post about the experience if I ever have the chance to try this.

One Response to Editing the editor: style sheets

  1. UPDATE: I’ve since learned the trick of hiding (Format > Font > check Hidden box) initial punctuation and articles so that Microsoft Word ignores these when alphabetizing the word list. Click “Show all nonprinting characters” (the button with the pilcrow) to see the hidden words, then unhide them following final alphabetization but before printing.

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