For the confused author/editor: Style sheets vs Style guides

What the hell is a style sheet? 

Well, in computer lingo, it’s CSS or a cascading style sheet which tells you what everything on every HTML page of your website looks like design wise. It’s supposed to make it more efficient to create and design websites.

But that’s not what you mean right? 

No, it’s not.

Say you are an author (fiction, non-fiction, corporate, government, whatever) and you send a document (your precious, your boss’ precious and so on) to an editor.

And the editor sends the document back and a few others, one of which is this weird combination of the alphabet and square boxes.

That little document is a style sheet. An editorial style sheet. It looks like this:

This is my style sheet.
This is my style sheet.

So what happens is that I will list all the inconsistencies in your document in the style sheet in alphabetical order and tell you what the right spelling of a word is or when a number should be spelled out and so on. Punctuation rules, rules for graphs, headings, quotation marks, italics, foreign words – all these will get listed here.

And then you as the author get to go use the find tool in Word and find all the instances of that error and change it to what I recommend as listed on the style sheet. You can keep the style sheet and glance at when you write the next document so you get to learn as you go and improve your writing.

So what’s a style guide then? 

Ah, now some people call these style sheets as well so you might be a bit confused. But if you are writing for publication in some form either externally or internally within your organisation, then someone somewhere (usually your organisation or your publisher) has a little booklet/book/list of how they choose to 1) reference and cite other material 2) spell or use certain words and 3) punctuate and write out figures, numerals, dates and other such things and 4) their choice in how you should treat things like headings, spacing, font colour and size and how much they love the comma (or not love it as the case may be).

You have to keep to these rules if you want them to publish what you write. And if you want an editor to edit your work, the editor has to keep to these rules too. So if an editor asks you what style guide to use and you have no clue, ask your boss. If you can’t find anyone in your organisation/publisher/publication who has a clue, then tell your editor who will either be able to recommend what out of the available options the organisation can use that best works for you and the organisation or will be able to write up one for you.

Sometimes organisations have a one page long list that says “Use X as the basic style guide and deviate for the following cases only” or something to that effect.

Government organisations in Australia and most publishing houses use The Australian Style Manual by Snooks & Co (currently about to be updated). Most Australian magazines and newspapers will use the News Limited Style Guide whether they are part of the News Limited corporation umbrella or not simply because it pretty much covers the basics of journalism style and writing rather efficiently.

Academic journals have their own style guides usually referred to as referencing styles such as APA for most sciences (though sometimes Biology goes by another one) and MLA or Harvard for most arts and humanities related subjects. It’s best to check with the journal in question first.

But what is this other document that you sent me? About queries? 

That is an author query sheet. It’s a list of all the things in your document that I have queried. Things that I need you as the author to explain to me so I can make a decision as to whether it is ok to leave it unchanged or it needs editing. Sometimes it means I have noticed a factual error such as:

“AQ23: The Earth is NOT round, it is an oblate spheroid and thy character is a scientist who would be annoying enough to make this distinction when it comes up in conversation. Thou may wish to change thy dialogue on page 158 to reflect this. 🙂 “

And then I might add a smiley face. Or several. This seems to make a difference. I have flagged points of historical and political accuracy with academics that were experts on the topics with large egos and they were all thrilled to bits with the mere fact that I added smiley faces after my comments along the lines of:

“Hold on a minute, there were at least 33 banks that failed in Australia in the 1890s, mostly in Queensland – what are you going on about 17 for? *insert confused smiley face*”

Oh, my God, so my document has track changes, then I have a style sheet with my errors AND an author query sheet? How many things do I have to fix? Isn’t it too much? 

The answer to the first question is “Yes”, because this is the easiest way to ensure you understand why something needs to be fixed in order to make your writing awesome.

The answer to the second question is “As many as you want to” because the editor doesn’t fix them, the author does. This gives you control. The editor can only suggest changes that will make the writing even more awesome. If you accept them, and the logic behind them, then you make the changes. So you don’t have to accept any if you disagree with them all but you do have to pay the editor for having done the work of finding errors and suggesting improvements in the first place.

The answer to the third question is “Actually, probably not” because you may be a wonderful writer but your brain’s familiarity with the subject matter may cause you to miss things because you expect them to be there. And the editor may miss things too. This is called the “being human factor”. Which is why you often get your editor to look over the changes once you have made them to do a quick proofread of the work and make sure that every small possible thing has been caught. And why publishers hire both editors and proofreaders in the first place. And why there is a sub-editor for facts and legal stuff and a sub-editor for style in any newspaper that’s worth the money you spend on it.

As a writer, I tend to transpose words in the order wrong when I type fast (like that example I just gave you) and I tend to miss out words like “and” and “the”. I need another editor to catch those mistakes for me.

Yes, you read that right: editors need editors too.

If only because we need to argue with someone over the travesty that is the Oxford comma.

If there are any other editing/writing related issues that you are confused about, drop a line in the comments below.

You can also go read The Editor’s Blog’s post on style sheets for writers & editors. Which pretty much says all the things I have said here.


  • Kirstie

    Hi Marisa, I stumbled upon (not actually using Stumbled Upon just my own ability to find random and sometimes highly useful information) your blog a few weeks ago. I just wanted to send you a quick note to say how much I have enjoyed reading your blog – you cover so many topics that I love (science, editing, freelancing, the guy with the AWESOME repurposed typewriter and dial phone), though I really should knuckle down and do some paid work ASAP! Oh, and “the travesty that is the Oxford comma” – yup I’m with you there too!
    I am very excited to have found your (Australian-based) blog. Keep up the great work!
    Kirstie (new blog fan, Geelong, Victoria) 🙂

    • Marisa

      Hi Kirstie, Oh wow! That’s so sweet of you to let me know that you are a new fan! *feels somewhat overwhelmed* Thank you so much! I am glad you enjoy what I write about. 🙂

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