Planning Your Writing: 7. Personal Style Sheet

Planning Your Writing: 7. Personal Style Sheet
By Norma J Hill (aka Pen and Paper Mama) © 2021

In our previous series for writers, we discussed and provided worksheets for “Self Exploration For Writers,” “Your Writing Life,” and “Author Considerations Beyond Just Writing.” In this new series, “Planning Your Writing,” we will explore:

  1. Research
  2. Target Audience, Genre, and Purpose
  3. Seeking Help
  4. Useful Planning Documents
  5. Style Guides & Manuals
  6. Developing Creativity and Story Skills
  7. Personal Style Sheet

At the end of each post in the series, there is a link to a downloadable and printable PDF copy on which you can write your responses. Put them in a binder or Duotang-type report folder (you can continue to add to your binder from the previous series). Then, periodically along your writing journey, return to your answers, read what you noted previously, and add new thoughts and experiences. Through this process, you’ll end up with a wonderful record of your writer’s journey.

7. Personal Style Sheet

As you write your first draft—in fact, as you plan ahead with your research, do outlines and queries and synopses and so on, think about your audience and genre and purpose, check out style guides, and feed your creativity with the methods listed in part 6 of this series, you’ll want to be sure to create a personal style sheet for your project.

Your style sheet will remind you of the choices you are making for your manuscript, whether it is fiction or nonfiction, poetry, screenwriting, playwriting, video game writing, an academic assignment, or another writing format. Your sheet will be specific to your writing project and your personal communication style. It will help you (and your writing team) keep your writing clear and consistent in style. 

You can jot down preferred spellings, overused words you want to avoid, punctuation and capitalization styles you’ll use, details about your characters and setting and other story elements, and so on. Be sure to follow the correct style manual for the format you’re writing in; if you have a publisher, you will need to follow their special requirements, but remember that there will still be ways you can develop your personal writing style and voice. You will find your style sheet invaluable as you write, self-edit, and revise—and you can share it with your beta readers and other critique group members as well as your editor when that time comes.

If you have already completed your first draft without a style sheet, you can still create one as you read right through the draft before you start to self-edit. Don’t spend time doing “fixes” during this initial read-through but do create the sheet and keep it handy as you work through the self-editing process. The following points will help you develop a style sheet—create a unique one for each of your writing projects.

On the following pages are items you may include in your style sheet. Whether you have a project in mind, or you’ve already started a project, set up a style sheet (a page of lined paper for each of the following topics, placed in a binder or Duo-tang style report folder works well) right now, and let’s get started:

Foundational information:
Working title (Your book’s final title may be different, but at this point create a working title—and subtitle if needed—that describes your project in a few key words):

Target audience description (age, gender, location, interests, cultural background, education, favorite genres, what they want to know about, etc.):   Purpose of your writing:   Concise summary of the plot if it’s a story; or the topic/subject if nonfiction:     Point of view (first person, second person, third person? One POV or alternating POV in different chapters? Narrator?):     Primary narrative tense choice (past? present? future?):     Timeline/chronological information:     World building rules (things that are different from Earth and will result in actions and events that couldn’t happen on Earth as we know it—for example, strength of gravity. This is particularly important in genres such as Sci-Fi and Fantasy):        
Character descriptions and traits; settings (List your characters, and for each one, indicate name, physical description, personality, language/dialect, culture, clothing style, and other important descriptors. Then you won’t end up with confusing changes in your story. Do the same for your settings).            
Style guide/manual and variations (Write down the style guide you will be using, and then list any variations you will make that don’t follow that guide. Remember, consistency is key):    
Spelling: Divide a sheet of paper into squares for each letter of the alphabet, and write your chosen spellings in the correct alphabetical squares. These spellings may include: the correct spelling (and capitalization) of proper nouns: character names, place names, geographical locations, building names, companies and organizations.your choice for words that have alternative spelling choices in the dictionary.correct spelling for words you often spell incorrectly.abbreviations, contractions, acronyms, initialisms. Where there is more than one correct option, choose the format you prefer and use it consistently.choice of -ize or -ise endings, -or or -our spellings, and other regional spellings. Choose the spelling that fits your setting and/or will be expected by your readers.word pairs, hyphenated words, or compound words. These are often in transition; choose from an up-to-date dictionary the form you prefer. Be aware that in some cases, the form depends on the part of speech (noun, verb, adjective, adverb) for which the word is being used.capitalization. While there are standard rules for capitalization in your formal style guide, you may have instances of special words/phrases you want capitalized in specific ways. Hint: You can also add your spelling and special word choices to your word processor (e.g. Microsoft Word or Pages) dictionary if they aren’t there already, so the software won’t be constantly underlining “incorrect” words.    
Word choice: Regional terms, slang, idioms, dialects. Keep your audience—and the setting of your story—in mind. Does your character use the bathroom, the washroom, the loo, the john, or the WC? What about slang terms suitable to the age and cultural group of your characters? Make these decisions now and be consistent with them:       Preferred technical (or non-technical/layperson) terms relevant to your topic, depending on your style and audience:     Words to use or not to use: slang or swear words, jargon, or cliches related to your topic:    
Punctuation: Certain punctuation rules vary according to location. For example, in Britain the period at the end of a quotation/dialogue follows the end quotation mark, while in North American it almost always precedes the end quotation mark. Take your audience’s location and expectations into account. Also, while your formal style guide will list punctuation rules, you may be offered choices; you must decide what choice you prefer and then use it consistently. Whether or not to use the “Oxford comma” is an example of these kinds of choices. A few types of punctuation may be particularly confusing to you. If so, write down those rules in your personal style guide so you can refer to them quickly when you can’t remember what to do. An example is hyphens and dashes—which are actually different kinds of punctuation. In fact, the dashes themselves come in both em and en forms for different purposes. Commas, too, have many different rules for different situations—or maybe you should use a semi-colon? Or a colon? Or a dash? Or parentheses? Or ellipses? Study these, understand how they are used, and if there are choices you need to make decisions about, list them on your style sheet, and then be consistent in your use of punctuation. Start your list here:  
Emphasis, foreign words, and thoughts: You will want to decide how you will emphasize certain words and phrases or indicate foreign words or a character’s internal thoughts. It is wise to use different forms (italics, bolding, quotation marks, all capitals, etc.) for each of these different needs. Write your choices down and provide a sample sentence for each. Avoid using the same form for more than one, or at most two, of these situations. And remember, ideally your writing style itself should, as often as possible, provide emphasis so you don’t need to “emphasize” / emphasize / emphasize / EMPHASIZE it with a special format. That said, start to list your decisions, with sample sentences, here:      
Design and formatting choices: What types of tables and charts will you use and how will they look?   What about lists: what are your preferences for bullet or numbered lists (including capitalization and end punctuation for each point)?     How will you format headings and subheadings?   What about captions, quotation marks, dialogue formatting, short and long quotations, paragraph indentation, line spacing?     What method will you be following for citations (footnotes, endnotes, bibliography)?   What about your layout choice for the Table of Contents, Index, page headers and footers, and pagination?     It’s a good idea to include descriptions and/or samples of each of these in your personal style sheet, especially for more complex nonfiction works. Note that underline is now almost exclusively used for indicating internet links—especially with e-books or online writing. Numbers: numerals or words? While your formal style guide will indicate the preferred way to indicate numbers—as numerals or words—in various situations, you do have some choices. What about Arabic or Roman numerals? In what situations?   What about formatting for dates and time?     How will you use numbers in graphs, tables, and charts? Write down your decisions and provide samples for each.        
Dialogue: Will you use special idioms or dialects in conversations in order to develop your characters’ personalities? Write down your decisions, with examples:     Be aware that there are formal rules on how to paragraph and punctuate dialogue. And they can vary according to country/region or by formal style manual, or sometimes even by your own quirky choices. Be consistent and keep your readers in mind. Avoid confusing them—or annoying them with choices that are too unusual or experimental.   Be careful not to confuse your readers by using the same formatting for dialogue that is spoken aloud as the formatting you use for internal thoughts. Some writers use italics for internal thoughts; others may use words like “s/he/they thought …” or simply write in such a way that it is clear to the reader that this is internal thought/dialogue. If you can, try to show your characters’ thoughts through actions, facial expressions or body language, point of view, or other approaches, rather than writing their thoughts in dialogue form. If you need to include thoughts, keep them fairly short; don’t ramble.  

Putting your notes into practice:

Set up your personal style sheet (in a binder or report folder) right now! You can jot down your initial decisions in the spaces above, but it’s important to have a full page (or 2 or 3 in some cases) for each of the topics above. As you write (and self-edit/revise), be sure to add any new details that come along.

When you hand your manuscript to your editor, be sure to include a copy of your style sheet,

While beta-readers and feedback/critique group members usually are focusing more on “big idea” aspects of your manuscript (rather than fine points such as grammar and punctuation), if there is information in your style sheet that is relevant to what you want them to watch out for, include that along with the manuscript.

PDF LINK: Planning Your Writing: 7. Personal Style Sheet

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