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The most powerful tool an editor has at their disposal is the one they make themselves – the editing style sheet.

Editing with style

The most powerful tool an editor has at their disposal is the one they make themselves – the editing style sheet. Yes, even in the day and age of Find and Replace, the editing style sheet is an editor’s best friend.

By Kathie Stove DE

The Chicago manual of style (1993) identifies why editors use style sheets:

No style book will provide rules covering all matters of style encountered by the editor, and no editor worth the title will apply identical rules to every book manuscript. Therefore, to ensure consistency in the style used in the particular manuscript, and to aid the editorial memory, it is helpful if not imperative to keep for each manuscript a running account of special words to be capitalized, odd spellings, compound words with or without hyphens, and the like.

Good points but let’s cut to the chase: the best reason to use style sheets is that it makes the job of editing so much easier and closer to foolproof. Construct a comprehensive style sheet, in consultation with your client, keep it up to date and use it effectively, and your clients will love you for it.

Janet Mackenzie writes in her 2004 book, The editor’s companion:

The purpose of writing is communication; the purpose of editing is to improve communication by removing distractions.

Two big distractions for readers are inconsistency and incorrect use. Both can be more damaging than mere distraction.

Judith Butcher, in The Cambridge handbook of copy-editing for editors, authors and publishers (1992) says:

If a book is inconsistent in matters of detail, the reader or reviewer may begin to doubt the author’s accuracy and thoroughness over matters of fact. In some cases inconsistency may lead to ambiguity: if the author capitalizes a word inconsistently the reader may think some distinction is intended.

Incorrect use can also lead to doubt.

A style sheet can’t cover correctness in grammar and punctuation; it can’t force good expression. It can nail down correct proper names: Ann (without ‘e’); the South Australian Department of the Premier and Cabinet (don’t forget the ‘the’); Standard & Poor’s.

There is, though, so much in English that is not ‘correct’, or more correctly there is really no right or wrong.

Does cooperate take a hyphen? Do you capitalise the main words in a heading? How do you express dates?

We might have personal preferences but so does everyone else.

No matter which bizarre choices organisations, CEOs, vice chancellors, ministers and authors insist on, we editors, after politely suggesting that there is a better way, need to make sure the final choices are consistently followed.

Judith Butcher has a list of things that should be consistent (adapted below):

  • spelling: particularly for alternative spellings such as –ize/–ise, metre/meter; anglicisation of personal and place names
  • accents, particularly on semi-anglicised words such as regime or naive, and on transliterated words
  • hyphenation/one word/two words in ordinary words and in place names such as Yorke and Mid North Region of South Australia
  • capitalisation
  • italic, especially for semi-anglicised words or those very familiar to the author, e.g. Indian terms in a book on India
  • abbreviations, particularly the use of full stops in groups of capitals
  • dates
  • units of measurement
  • numbers, especially elision of pairs of numbers, and the use of words or figures
  • single or double quotes
  • bibliographical references
  • cross-references.

An editor worthy of the name is alert to distractions as they read through a document. Whenever you get a little ‘hmmm’ grab on to it. It is probably something that is inconsistent. Don’t leave it to the end to make those decisions.

And if when you get to page 136 and think that you’ve made the wrong choice, or suddenly cotton on to an inconsistency that you’ve missed before, then Find and Replace can ride to the rescue. The occasional wrong choice does not negate the need to start your style sheet at the beginning.

If you rely on Find and Replace to check consistency at the end of your editing task, please think again. The ‘last minute list’ is the editor’s second best friend but a style sheet constructed on the job will give you a comprehensive check list to refer to so that your search is not random.

How do I make my style sheets? First I should say that most of my work is government, industry and business documents. Fiction is not for me and I edit few books.

Nowadays I compile my style sheets electronically, usually starting with one I prepared earlier on a similar type of job. (For a sample style sheet see the Style manual (Snooks & Co. 2002) page 265). It is one of the few things that I print out, so that it is easier to access as I edit.

I start with a statement something like: spelling and usage follow the current Macquarie Dictionary and Australian Government Style Manual except when different from this style sheet.

At the front I have sections like capitals, numbers and units, phone numbers, dates and time, Acts of Parliament, references. Then I have an alphabetical spelling and hyphenation list.

I add new entries by hand to the printed style sheet. When I get to the point of too messy to decipher, I update the electronic file and print out again.

Yes, I still misbehave sometimes and forget to stick something on the style sheet (and regret it later). I sometimes get lazy and use an old, vaguely relevant style sheet for a new job without thinking it through (more regrets).

The thing is, I always use one. Professionals use the tools of their trade to get the best result. The editing style sheet is the core tool of the editor.


  • Snooks & Co. 2002. Style manual for authors, editors and printers. Sixth edition. John Wiley & Sons, Melbourne.
  • The Chicago manual of style. 1993. Fourteenth edition. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago Ma.
  • Mackenzie, BJ. 2004. The editor’s companion. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge UK.
  • Butcher, J. 1992. The Cambridge handbook of copy-editing for editors, authors and publishers. Third edition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge UK.