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Anne Louise Mahoney

Learning to Love Style Sheets

A clipboard holds a sheet of paper that has “Style Sheets” written across the top.
A clipboard holds a sheet of paper that has “Style Sheets” written across the top.
Copyright: magicleaf

As a copy editor, how do you feel about creating a style sheet for each project you work on?

  1. It’s tedious and takes a lot of extra time that I don’t have.
  2. I never make one. I can remember all the style choices anyway.
  3. I resist making them but then grudgingly admit they’re helpful when I need to check spelling or other style choices later.
  4. I love to make them!

I’ve found myself in each of these camps at various times, depending on how busy my work schedule is, how complex the project is, how confident I’m feeling and what clients expect. With practice, though, I’ve befriended style sheets and now see them as a tool that makes me more efficient and consistent as an editor. In this post, I’ll tell you about how I learned to stop worrying (about inconsistencies) and love style sheets.

Editors Canada’s Professional Editorial Standards consider developing (or following) a style sheet part of the copy editor’s role (Standard D9) and adhering to (or preparing) one as a task for the proofreader (Standard E2). 

Here are some of the benefits of creating a style sheet for a project and tips for getting started.

The benefits of making style sheets

Helping yourself

Once you’ve decided on the spelling, capitalization, hyphenation, abbreviations and so on of words and terms, you don’t need to keep wrestling with them. Whether it’s a short job that you finish the same day or a long-term project that comes back to you every so often, these styles are fixed. That frees up your mind to focus on your main task.

Helping your client and their team

Once a project is out of your hands, it takes on a life of its own. There’s no need for a proofreader or designer to wonder which styles you chose — your style sheet will guide them and help them avoid introducing inconsistencies or errors.

If you’re the proofreader and there is no style sheet, making one will not only help you keep track of styles for the project but also model good practice for the client for future projects.

Raising style questions early in the process

If you come across three spellings of a name, variations in capitalization or random hyphenation, you can check with the client at the start of the project to save everyone grief later.

Replacing outdated, inappropriate or offensive terminology

Here’s an opportunity to choose inclusive, respectful terms for today’s readers and enshrine them in the style sheet so everyone who sees it can spot the change and follow your lead. You can also flag these issues in the document itself and provide trustworthy sources for your decision.

How to get started

Begin with a template

Create a Word document that lists the resources you use (such as a dictionary and style guide), includes some common style choices (such as the use of the serial comma, how dates are written and when to spell out numbers or use figures) and has space for an alphabetized list of terms. 

Adapt the template to each project

Every project has its own audience, parameters, vocabulary and feel. An annual report, a website, a novel and a cookbook each involve their own terminology and approach. Tailor your template so it’s user-friendly and clear for each project.

Keep the style sheet open

Having a second screen makes it easier to display the style sheet on your computer while you’re working, but you can also keep it tucked partly behind another window for quick access. 

Add to the style sheet regularly

Every time you come across a term that could have multiple spellings, an unusual name or a different convention for hyphenation or capitalization, add it to your style sheet. You may change your mind about a style 20 pages later — in which case, you can do a search for your first choice in the document you’re editing and update it.

Include any styles to avoid

Some clients like to see not just the styles you chose but the ones you rejected. Think about adding this information for clarity, such as “catalogue [not catalog].” 

How do you feel about style sheets? What are some tips you can share?


Previous post from Anne Louise Mahoney: Giving It Up for the Editing Community

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16 Comments on “Learning to Love Style Sheets”

  • One thing I realize (might not have been said in the article) is that style sheets are the house style choices. If a style sheet is used, the creation is generally the easy part. The hard part is getting all the departments on board. And knowing there’s going be updated versions of the style sheet too.

    • Anne Louise Mahoney


      That’s a good point, Stephanie – I always try to advocate for the reader in those situations. But it can be complicated in a larger organization to have everyone get on board, I agree.

  • Wayne


    Thanks for this succinct description of the value of a style sheet. I also do many of the things you mention here. I can’t imagine working on any copy editing project without making one. Yes, it’s good for the client but it’s good for me too: I may not remember the decision I made about Word X on page 5 when I see it again on page 55. Great piece, thanks.

    • Anne Louise Mahoney


      Thanks, Wayne! Often I start by debating between two or more options for a style, so having the final choice in writing is a huge help.

  • Gael Spivak


    What a great post, Anne Louise. This summary will be so helpful when people have questions about style sheets.

    • Anne Louise Mahoney


      Thanks, Gael! Style sheets really can make life easier for so many people involved the process of creating and producing a text, so this post could be a helpful reminder about why they’re worth doing.

  • Anita Jenkins


    Thanks for contributing to Editors’ Weekly, Anne Louise. Style sheets are such a simple thing, and yet so absolutely important. I remember asking clients, «Do you want to spell Canadian?» and they would say, «We want it spelled right.» (Yes, I am from Alberta, and we sometimes asked questions like that, being, apparently, the Texas of the North.

    • Anne Louise Mahoney


      Great anecdote, Anita! Style sheets really can save a lot of headaches later in the process.

  • Sudha Soundrapandiyan


    Quite engaging article, Anne.

    At times, when managing two concurrent projects with distinct styles, a style sheet proves to be a valuable reference for keeping track of their respective styles. It is thus particularly important when multitasking.

    • Anne Louise Mahoney


      Thanks, Sudha! That’s a helpful point about how style sheets allow us to keep our styles straight when we’re working on more than one project at a time.

  • Jennifer Rae-Brown


    Having a style guide makes editing so much easier for all concerned. I’ve created many, for different clients, and one aspect to keep in mind is making it easy for them to follow. This includes getting the length right: not so long that it’s unwieldy, but more than a link to CMOS; explaining grammar rules with simple examples; sharing links to online dictionaries; and, most important, inviting the client to give feedback and contribute so that it works for them.

    • Anne Louise Mahoney


      That’s really helpful, I agree, Jennifer. A style guide is only useful if people follow it, and if it’s unwieldy or too vague, that doesn’t work for anyone.

  • Style sheets helps us avoid misspellings, grammar errors, and style. It’s the first thing that I demand to see when I join a new company as an editor. I can’t think of a situation where an editor or writer would feel it’s unnecessary.

    • Anne Louise


      So true, WordUnscrambler! Asking an employer or client for a style sheet is a great way to start a conversation about why these tools are so important and useful. If one exists, fantastic! If not, you can make a case for starting the practice.

  • As with everything that involves MS Word, I find that creating style sheets is much quicker with the use of macros, which I use for a variety of tasks, including copying terms from the manuscript to the style sheet and taking a list of words from a style sheet I receive and highlighting all of them in the manuscript (to verify that the previous editor actually caught all inconsistencies and made accurate style sheet entries).

    • Anne Louise Mahoney


      That’s a great approach to ensuring consistent styles, Michael. This could make for an interesting Editors Canada webinar!

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