Getting the Most Out of Your Copyeditor: The Style Sheet- Part Two

Copyright 2006 American Book Publishing

A style sheet’s purpose is to give the copyeditor information on unique features of a book’s manuscript.

In part one of our article on this topic we covered problems in editing a book without a style sheet and how to prepare a style sheet. We specifically addressed how abbreviations and numbers and dates sections are applied. We will now continue in this article with the remaining sections of a style sheet.


What unusual punctuation does the author use and what does the editor think should be done about it? For example, does the editor prefer that the copyeditor delete the author’s frequent commas when unnecessary, or that the copyeditor allow the author to use interrobangs (?!)?

Sample style sheet comments:

“The author used a lot of hyphens when she meant to use an em dash. I think I found and fixed all of these, but keep your eyes open for them, just in case I missed one.”

“The author is enthusiastic, and in order to keep the manuscript true to her voice, I allowed her to use three exclamation points (!!!) in a row when she was really excited about something. So, please don’t delete the two extra exclamation points.”

Capitalization, Hyphenation, Spelling, and Italics

What specialized vocabulary does the manuscript use, and what should the copyeditor do with it? For example, in one manuscript on foreign politics I copyedited, the names of political parties were sometimes capitalized and sometimes not; sometimes, because I was not familiar with the politics of that nation, I didn’t know if a word was the name of a political party or not. The editor could have helped me out immensely in that case. Was isolationist just an adjective, or the name of the Isolationist Party?

Preferred spellings: For example, Merriam-Webster prefers the spellings OK and good-bye, but I have copyedited books whose authors preferred the spellings okay and goodbye.

Does the author prefer to italicize all foreign words or italicize only the first usage of a foreign word that is used multiple times? This depends on the category of literature the manuscript falls into, as well as on how many foreign words occur.

Sample style sheet comments:

“German nouns are capitalized, e.g., Gesellschaft. I think I have remembered to capitalize all the nouns, but if you see one you think should be capitalized, please mark it with a comment. Also, all the German words should be italicized, regardless of how many times they occur.”

“There are two characters with hyphenated names: Ely Ran-to-the-River and Karen Smith-Johnson. In the narrative, the author calls Ely by his last name, which should be written out: ‘Ran-to-the-River telephoned his sister.’ But the author most often calls Karen by her first name.”

“The author prefers to use Qur’an rather than Koran.”

Of course, no standard style sheet could possibly cover every contingency. Here are some other issues an editor might consider including in a style sheet:

Questionable content, e.g., profanity and violent or erotic scenes: Since American Book has a policy against questionable content, I expect an editor to let me know about words and scenes he or she has approved. The style sheet should say something along the lines of, “Allow the usage of [profane word] on pages 25 and 56. Mark other usages.”

Editors, please note that copyeditors are not allowed to edit out questionable words and scenes! I once actually found an editor’s comment to an author on a manuscript that said something along the lines of, “Well, you really shouldn’t use this word, but if you really don’t want to change it, let’s see if the copyeditor allows you to keep it.” I’m sure the editor thought she had deleted that comment before she sent me the manuscript. But let me repeat it if you editors and authors didn’t catch it the first time: Copyeditors cannot edit out questionable words and scenes. It is up to the editor and author to do that.

Grammar issues the copyeditor should double-check: For example, does the author occasionally accidentally switch verb tenses in the narrative? One editor had been working with an author on the difference between which and that. Because she let me know this had been an issue, I was able to catch the instances of which-that confusion that she had missed. I might not have been as alert to the issue if she hadn’t said something.

Changed names of characters or places: Copyeditors absolutely need to know if any names have been changed, as occasionally the wrong name is left in the manuscript by accident.

Documentation: This is an area where authors frequently make errors, as the rules are complicated and authors frequently have used a style guide besides the Chicago Manual of Style in compiling them. Therefore, any special instructions must be explicitly noted.

And finally, the editor should note any questions that he or she has on style. At the very least, the copyeditor can make a recommendation or refer the editor to the appropriate CMS rule.

These are just some examples of issues it would be wise to include in a manuscript’s style sheet. I cannot list every stone over which a copyeditor might stumble, as every manuscript is unique, so an editor should let that uniqueness be his or her measuring stick.

An editor should keep a notepad or separate Microsoft Word document about issues he or she notices while editing a manuscript and then include them in the style sheet. Doing so saves time, makes the process easier and improves quality for everyone involved in the editing and production of the book.