How to use a style sheet as a writing tool

How many of us have been confronted with the antics of a City Council where, even before the Roads Division gets to the far end of a short suburban street they’re resurfacing, the Lines Service arrives at the near end and jiggers up the brand new seal, so they can put the power cables underground.

Wright_Typewriter2What does this have to do with writers? An awful lot, it turns out. Write something long enough, and odds are on you’ll have problems with the consistency from one end to the other. Time and the realities of human memory takes the place of a dysfunctional bureaucracy. But the result is the same – end-point chaos.

It’s a problem in all the arts – witness The Fly (1957) where the lead actor was Dave Hedison in the opening credits and Al Hedison in the closing list (or was it the other way around).

Then there was Tolkien, whose writing technique consisted of endless authorial changes, with the result that the first edition of The Lord Of The Rings had much the same consistency as rough-mix concrete. So too did the first edition of Winston Churchill’s The Second World War, where he pursued his publisher with ‘overtake’ versions of the original text to the point where chaos’ umpire reigned.

It’s a problem true of any writing – fiction and non-fiction alike – and it gets worse the longer the writing is, and the more obscure the subject. It even comes down to capitalisations, consistencies of spelling, and a host of other minutiae that frequently slip under the radar of writers and even editors. The problem is that there’s no easy way around it. On my own experience, even multiple independent proof-reading passes don’t always catch problems. Though, sure as eggs, the author spots them 28 milliseconds after the brand new advance copy arrives in the mail.

But there are tricks to ameliorate the issue – and one of them is to prepare a style sheet – especially for fiction – with any quirky spelling, capitalisation and other content carefully listed off. That gives a basic reference point. A style sheet still doesn’t avoid the need for manual cross-checking: auto-replace and auto-correct help – and offer one way of quickly pushing a consistent usage or spelling into a document.

But both are incredibly literal-minded and often do dumb things, especially if you click the wrong thing in the instruction dialog box.

There is, unfortunately, no substitute for carefully going through a document, word by word.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


4 thoughts on “How to use a style sheet as a writing tool

  1. Oh, I’d first read the subject line as suggesting web page style sheets, CSS pages, and I couldn’t imagine how that might be of any help. You’re thinking more of the kinds of style sheets newspapers use to sort out how to capitalize and refer to institutions and the like.

    1. Yes. It didn’t occur to me that the term has a double use these days – I’ve spent so long in the writing and publishing business that I forget the jargon has been co-opted…

  2. The series of books I am writing has many characters. (Unusual names as the series is set in the 1st century AD. I made time-lines for events within each book. Eg Pentecost till Trumpets when something important was happening. (Just one example.) I also have an Excel database of character names and where they fit. It has been worth it.🙂
    Even so, as you say, Still have to sit and read it, preferably after a break.

    1. That database idea sounds a really good one for keeping internal consistency. I tend to scribble on pieces of paper or use Word, but neither are any good for larger volumes of data.

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