Style Guides: Do Writer's Need One?

The simple answer is: yes.

Not having a style guide is like turning up to present to an audience with some of your shirt buttons undone. It’s almost like you forgot to look in the mirror before you presented.

A style guide acts as that mirror. It reflects the key points in your writing when you need it the most, which is usually when you’re in the thick of your plot. It details the points you simply cannot go wrong with if you’re looking to give your reader a pleasant experience. A style guide will ensure you receive reviews that focus on your story, not your inconsistencies.

I’m sure that is any author’s goal. You want your writing to be the best it can be after all the hard work you have put into it, and that’s why many authors opt to work with an editor to ensure their work is not overshadowed by avoidable inconsistencies and errors in plot and flow. So, if you’re serious about your writing, think hard about creating a style guide.

It’s important to note that a style guide is not the same as having a character profile or a setting description, although some key elements will overlap. The style guide is more of a handy reference guide that you put together as you write, or when you read through a draft version of your book. Paying attention to the layout of your style guide will help speed up cross-referencing when you need it. The best part is, once it’s done, it’s done. It can then be used for sequels or the template could even be used for your future books.

Benefits of having a style guide 

  • You will have a consistent manuscript – your characters won’t unnaturally vary from one scene to the next (e.g. blue-eyed blonde becomes a green-eyed blonde towards the end); the moon won’t shine during the day; your British character won’t have to fight to get a visa to return to the UK …

  • Your editor can use the style guide to ensure you have been consistent during the editing process. If they spot any inconsistencies, they can correct them immediately, without having to query it with you. As mentioned, a good editor will also create a style guide as they edit. Having one provided by you, will enable the editor, or proofreader, to focus less on the discrepancies in writing, and they won’t end up editing things you didn’t want changed

  • If you’re planning on writing a sequel or another book, then your writing style remains consistent – always a positive experience for readers and fans. An added bonus would be that you wouldn’t need to go through the pages of your first book to find the information you want to carry forward, or follow on from, in the sequel.

Your own style guide

You should consider creating a style guide of your own to start with. The most important information to include on your style guide would be: punctuation and grammar rules, characters, timelines, locations and plot overview. If you have emails, letters or text messages as content, the text formatting you choose would also be useful to include on the style guide. Even consider the basics, like chapter headings. Are they all caps, first letter capitalized for key words, or just sentence case?

A style guide will help you keep things consistent and reduce the volume of changes you may need to make when you are finished with your first draft. It will also give your editor the freedom to focus more on the story than avoidable inconsistencies.

Being an author means you are being creative as you go along. Inspiration may strike at any point in your writing and it could come from anywhere. Let’s say you’re paying for your groceries and notice the checkout assistant’s stunning green eyes, and think to yourself, I’d like my main character to have green eyes instead of blue.

Great! You get back to your computer, hop on Word and change blue to green using the “Find” function. Simple!

Chances are, though, you might have missed one instance, a subtle one. For example, if your main character has blue eyes, you may have referred to their eyes through descriptive words such as ‘ocean’, ‘indigo’ or ‘glacier’. Whereas, with green eyes, you’d probably want to use descriptive words such as ‘emerald’ or ‘grass-like’. These are the kinds of nuances an editor would pick up on, but they should also be on your style guide.

Publisher’s House Style

If your publisher has their own style guide, you will need to adhere to this. In-house style guides are there so that there is a consistent cosmetic look and feel about the books they publish. The publisher’s style guide will cover the basics, such as punctuation, style of headings, use of italics, formatting of dates, etc.

This doesn’t mean you don’t need to create your own style guide. Your characters, scenes, settings, plot and timelines are your own. They are unique to your book and any inconsistencies in these details will simply reflect your work. Getting all these details down in your own style guide will come in handy during the writing process, irrespective of whether you use it during the writing, when reading the first draft or if you just pass it on to your editor.

When to create a style guide?

This really depends on you. Some authors like to prepare one as they write. Others prefer to create one at the end, when they’ve finished their first draft and are in the process of reading through it. And some, unfortunately, don’t have one at all.

There is no right or wrong time to create one, but have a think about when would suit you best:

  • If you create one as you write, perhaps it will get in the way of your creativity

  • If you start one as you read through your first draft, perhaps you’ll lose track of the flow

One recommendation I do have is that you note down some of the absolute rules you would need to follow, before you start writing. It will act as a great reference source when you’re halfway through your book and can’t remember which rule you followed. If you have an in-house style guide from a publisher, you can skip this part of the style guide and focus on what’s unique to your book. The information that follows is mostly aimed at author’s who create their own style guides.

What to include on the style guide?

 If you’re writing your style guide from scratch, start with the basics. Think ‘back to school’. Think back to all the basic rules of grammar and punctuation — the ones you must follow. The grammar rules will depend on the style you use in your writing.

Most fiction and non-fiction books follow the Chicago Manual of Style. Note your preferences down on your style guide before you start writing, or during the early stages of your writing so it doesn’t interrupt your creativity and flow.

 

Some basic stylistic rules you will want to consider:

  • Do you prefer to use an em dash (–) to break up a sentence, or ellipses (…)? You might also prefer to use parenthesis. Whichever style you chose, it’s a good idea to stick to it

  • Double or single quotes for dialogue? You can’t use both. Also note, double quotes inside single quotes, or vice versa

  • Serial comma or Oxford comma?

  • Abbreviate with full form in brackets, or full form followed by abbreviation in brackets

  • Formatting of chapter headings and subheadings, use of capitalization

  • Character’s thoughts in italics, or not

  • Text format for emails, texts or similar. Format for stutters in speech specific to a character

  • Bullets points or numbered lists?

Characters

  • Characters: include physical attributes such as hair color, eye color and age. If your manuscript includes other details, such as nicknames, dates, place of birth or citizenship, add these in too

  • Do your characters having distinguishing features?

  • Dialogue: make a note of the variation in each character’s dialogue. Who drops their ‘g’s’ at the end of words? Does anyone stutter? Include specific phrases/words used by individual characters

Spelling

  • List any foreign or made up names/words, and make a note if they are italicized or accented. For example, do you use naïve or naive; façade or facade?

  • Specific spellings you prefer: focussed vs focused

  • Swear words: do you spell them out or use symbols?

  • Use of -ise or -ize

  • List hyphenated words/phrases

 Numerals

  • Date formats

  • Ordinals – superscript or normal text.

  • Time format: 8 a.m. or 0800 hours (many variations)

Plot

If your plot involves parallel timelines that are dated or timestamped, then use the style guide as a means of keeping track of these key details.

 

Template for your style guide

There is no hard and fast template for style guides but, obviously, the clearer you lay out your key points, the easier it will be for you to find the information you need. Again, this is very much specific to you, but creating one document broken down into sections with clear headings will ease the referencing process. 

Although creating a style guide may seem like another time-consuming task, it will be the most valuable ‘log book’ you own. So, invest a little of your time on a style guide. You can’t go wrong!


Shirley Khan began her career in the healthcare industry, before choosing to make a career change to follow her passion for books. Her love of books began at a very early age, to the point where she snuck novels into school classes, hoping she could read a page or two while the teacher’s attention was elsewhere. 

Currently, she works as a freelance editor with both UK and US clients, and is in the process of writing her first book, which she works on between her many editorial projects.