Edit with a Style Guide

by Bethany Kaczmarek

Whether we’re talking clothes or conversation or writing, everyone’s got his own style. Style is part of who you are, part of your voice. Your writing has nuances, and those make your style unique. With each new manuscript you write, certain habits of yours will be evident again and again and again.
And this is why—as both an editor and as a writer—a client style guide has become my new best friend. 

What’s a style guide, you ask? A document that records the way certain details are to be handled for a particular author—from formatting, to spellings, to character details and other crucial aspects of story world.

Working with a style guide unique to each client has revolutionized my work. I no longer have to ask with each new manuscript:
Do you prefer blond or blonde? Or was it blond for guys and blonde for girls?
Do you hate semicolons?
I thought your protag’s hometown was Hampton in the last book—not Hamden.
Aren’t the Sithrkafa the ones who value prowess in warfare? Because Caden just referred to them as the farmers. He meant the Lohdirrim, right?

Now, when I work with a return client, all these questions are answered up front. I learned the specifics as I edited the first project. I simply tweak the details for each new book in the series. If we’re starting a new series, there are still several details that carry over—simply because of the author’s writing style.

Think how handy it could be in your self-editing process! It gives you direction—a checklist—and it can even save you money. The more polished your manuscript is before you send it off, the less work the professional editor has to do.

Here’s what I include in my style guide:

Basic Style Guide
If you’re writing fiction, it’s the Chicago Manual of Style. If you’re not, you’ll still find this list helpful; it’ll just need some tweaking.

  • Chapter titles. How many spaces from the top of the page? How many spaces after? Heading or normal text? Bold?
  • Epigrams, or quotes from story-world texts, other published documents, or scripture passages at the chapter opening. Italicize them? Enclose them in quotation marks?
  • Citations (including emails and texts) in the story itself. This is especially important if you’re indie publishing, because you’re the last word—and they all need to be handled consistently.
  • "Straight" or “smart” (curly) quotes. It’s simply important to know which you want so you can make sure the other kind don’t sneak in there during the editing process.

  • Fragments. Are they allowed for rhythm, voice, or emphasis? Or do you hate them? Maybe they’re only allowed in dialogue.
  • Contractions. Perhaps in your story, they’re not era-appropriate. If your setting is Victorian England, do not use them. If it’s South Boston, ya know what to do.
  • Present participles (-ing). I have one client who despises them so completely, his style guide says, “Avoid present participles (and clichés) like the plague, racking your brain, wielding creativity and inspiration like weapons, choosing alternate wording, and sounding definite and strong.”

  • CMOS, the fiction bible, says you spell out one to ninety-nine except in hyphenated compound words (32-inch LCD TV, 45-degree angle). But you might have some other specifics to add. Like:
  • Numerals for dates, except in dialogue.
  • Numerals when part of proper name: ’64 ½ Mustang, Colt .45
  • Numerals for words in texting, e.g., Talk 2 me 2moro

  • Commas, commas, and commas. Use the serial comma. Use a comma to separate compound sentences unless they’re short. Decide whether you want a comma before the word “too” when it’s used like the one in the semicolon bullet.
  • Semicolons, to some, are things of beauty; to others, they deserve to burn in unquenchable fire. Decide how you feel (and make sure your editor knows, too).
  • Em-dashes—spaced or unspaced? Do you use them for parenthetical comments, emphasized phrases, or interruptions?
  • Ellipses… Decide whether you like them auto-formatted and whether you like a space before and/or after.

  • Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed. is industry standard.
  • Foreign words. Do you italicize throughout? Just the first time?
  • Words that offer options. What about words like blond/blonde, ’til/till/until, curtsey/curtsy, dwarfs/dwarves, all right/alright?
  • Made-up words. Keep a list of these (here!) and then decide whether you’ll be following your own story-world rules or whether you’ll be following CMOS and applying it to your story world. For instance, in our world, English derivatives of Latin names of plants and animals (crocuses, maples, elk) are not capitalized.

Character Details
  • Names, nicknames
  • Physical features
  • Flaws
  • Important quotes which might come up later

Story-world Details
  • Setting. Landscapes, climate, era, civilization.
  • Culture. Class systems, etiquette, dress, technology.
  • Politics. Government, military, weaponry, laws, international relations.

While these are important in any era and story world, this is key for writers of speculative fiction. There may be different laws of motion or energy at work in an urban or paranormal fantasy or a dystopian novel. In a high fantasy or sci-fi work, even more details will need to be kept in mind.

Have you ever used a style guide as you’ve edited before? What else would you include in your style guide?


Bethany Kaczmarek, a 2015 ACFW Editor of the Year finalist, is a fan of Story. She makes sure every thread is woven consistently throughout a manuscript—whatever the genre. She points out ways to deepen and enrich the layers so the theme is vivid. And she’s great at helping to develop compelling subplots and secondary characters if sequels are on the horizon. As a card-carrying grammar nerd, Bethany believes an author’s voice comes from knowing the rules well enough to break them with flair. Though she takes editing seriously, she believes a healthy dose of humor can make the revision process fun. A member of the Christian Editor Connection and the Christian PEN, her goal is to help hard-working writers sound like gifted writers. She’s one of the Editor Sisters at A Little Red Ink. You can check out their blog at www.alittleredink.com


  1. Great post, Bethany. Thanks for sharing with us.

  2. This is a great post, Bethany! I think it's an awesome idea to have a personal style guide for a book or novel. Especially for self-pub authors and those who haven't landed a contract yet but hope to. The only thing I would add is that if the author is writing for a particular house, it would be better to know the house's style, as that will overrule their personal preference most times.

    1. You're right, Alycia. Unfortunately, unless you've published with a particular house before, there's no way to get that information ahead of time short of reading their books and taking notes. And still, there is some freedom.

      I'd suggest that--even with a traditional house--a writer use a style guide to make note of why she makes the choices she does (of course, acknowledging that if there are hard and fast rules, the house wins). But authors shouldn't be afraid to speak up over things that are important to them. Karen Ball recently shared a fabulous post about this from the writer's side. Here's the link: http://www.stevelaube.com/style-sheet-dont-let-your-manuscript-leave-home-without-it/

  3. I've not had an author provide a style sheet with their editing projects, but that sure would be helpful! However, I'll follow CMOS for punctuation and not any preference that are contrary to the manual.


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