Copyeditor Help: How to Create and Use Style Sheets

Style Sheets and Other Copyediting Specialties

  One of the most important things to do when you are copyediting is to create a style sheet. A style sheet is extremely important when you want to keep a piece of writing, no matter what it is, consistent. Consistency is incredibly important with both fiction and non-fiction because it ensures that you have consistent character names, dates and the preferences of the author. Style sheets can help in many different ways, for example:
  1. A style sheet may let you know that the subject of your article prefers to go by the name Nick, rather than Nicolas.
  2. A style sheet reminds you that your editor wants you to use the style "apples, pears, and bananas" rather than "apples, pears and bananas", (notice that the first list has two commas and the second one has one comma).

Style sheets should be used for:

  1. Presentations
  2. Fiction books
  3. Non-fiction books
  4. Reports
  5. Promotional materials
  6. Articles
  7. White papers

The style sheet will list the grammatical choices, characters, made-up words, unusual words, treatment of words, etc. and keep you consistent when making changes. If you do not have a style sheet, you could find that in some places you say "City of Los Angeles" while in other parts you say "city of Los Angeles"--this is not consistent and looks unprofessional when you are a copyeditor or writer.

Style sheets are very useful to proofreaders and copyeditors because they keep them from having to pay excessive attention to the consistencies in the writing. Instead, they simply match the information to the style sheet to find any problems. Style sheets can be created by the writer, but if they are not, then they are the responsibility of the copyeditor. Sometimes a copyeditor will be the one to create the style sheet, which he/she will then give to the writer. This is very common in magazine and newspaper copyediting, where the copyeditor wants the writers to follow a particular way of writing to ensure that things are consistent throughout the publication.

Style sheets also aid proofreaders and copyeditors when they are created by the writer because they help the writer get their point across. An example of this is if the writer specifically does not capitalize city names in their novel. The style sheet shows you as the proofreader that those city names are not supposed to be capitalized, and that helps keep you from editing things that should not be edited.

As the copyeditor, there are some things you should consider if you decide to put together a style sheet. These include:

  1. What you want capitalized. You may want proper nouns capitalized, as well as things like the names of books and films.
  2. How you want quotations used. Some editors want single quotations while others prefer double. You may want curly quotations rather than straight quotations and you may only want quotations in certain areas. Additionally, you could also require writers to use italics instead of quotation marks when dealing with quotes.
  3. Fonts are also something that you want to be consistent. This means that you could make a style sheet that only lists books, papers, films and plays in italics, while you make headings bold to ensure nothing else is bold. You may ask that there are no large fonts, and that you do not want any font size that is below point 10 point.
  4. Numbers are commonly a problem with copyediting, so a style sheet can help keep things consistent. Your style sheet may tell writers that you want them to spell out numbers below 10, or below 20, while you also want numbers that start a sentence to be spelled out. Another thing to consider is whether or not you want numbers to end in 'th' or 'st' in superscript or normal text. Some percentages are spelled out as 10%, 10 percent, or 10 per cent. A style sheet helps ensure you know exactly what you want out of your writers and they know what to write for you.

Creating a Style Sheet

When you create a style sheet, the first thing you need to do is to start reading the manuscript you are editing. When you come across a name or a place, you need to write it down. This way, when you come to that name or place again later on, you can compare the two and determine if they are the same or different. An example has been stated before with "City of Las Vegas" and "city of Las Vegas".

Once you have started reading, grab a chart, spreadsheet, or graph paper and write down the following on the side:

  • Names
  • Places
  • Plurals
  • Fonts Used
  • Capitalization
  • Numbers
  • Symbols
  • Hyphens

Now, as you read through the manuscript, begin making notes next to each heading so that you can keep track of any inconsistencies. You need to also write down everything that needs to remain consistent. While this is very time consuming, it is important to make sure the work is very consistent.

That is all there is to making a style sheet! You keep a log of the things that need to be consistent, and you write those items down. As you go through the literary work, you will find things that need to be changed and fixed, and then you can give that style sheet to the writer.

The Chicago Manual of Style

The style guide for American English is the Chicago Manual of Style, which was published for the first time by the University of Chicago Press in 1906. So far, 16 editions have been issued and it has proven to be invaluable to helping editors who need a style guide that keeps things consistent.

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online Proofreading and Copyediting course?
The CMS is found both in hardcover form and online, with the online edition being searchable.
The CMS is used by publishers of books and journals, academic publications, trade publications and more. The Chicago style also allows for different types of formats and is generally considered to be quite flexible.
Copyediting Specialties
Copyeditors can work in a variety of different industries and each industry will require different skills in copyediting. For example, editing fiction does not require the skills that come from the Chicago Manual of Style, but editing a newspaper will require this.

As was stated before, a copyeditor can work in a variety of industries, which come down to:

  • Editing and proofing editorial content that can include white papers, interviews and essays. These are edited for spelling and grammar primarily.
  • Editing content for promotional materials and newsletters.
  • Checking manuscripts for readability, style and consistency with the policy of editors.
  • Following the style guides to ensure that published works adhere to what editors want.

Other specialties to consider are whether or not you want to work within companies or work for yourself on a per project basis. You can choose to work per project, or per hour, with both having their own advantages.

Academic Papers

If you are editing academic papers, which can include journals, white papers and reports for universities, there are certain things to consider as an academic copyeditor.

  • Edit out contractions in the academic papers. Instead of "don't", you would edit this to say "do not".
  • Verb tense must be consistent throughout the paper and it should not change. Typically, you will use present tense for a paper. If the writer is writing about historical events, then they can write in the past tense.
  • Ensure that the writer is always using the active voice instead of the passive voice. Passive voice is when the subject of the sentence gets acted upon. It uses words such as is, was, are, be and being. That being said, the writer can get away with 75 percent active voice, and 25 percent passive voice.


If you are editing journalism articles, you should consider the following as a journalism copyeditor.

  • The structure of the article must stay in the active voice, not the passive voice.
  • The Chicago Manual of Style must always be used as the guide for proper word usage. Check all word choices against it, as well as do grammar and spelling checks on documents to ensure they read properly.
  • Remove words to get the article within the required word length. This means you need to know what can be removed in order to make it fit, without losing the tone of the article.
  • Fact-checking is very important because if there are any facts that are wrong, it can lead to lawsuits.
  • Interviews should be cross-checked against notes and audio files to ensure that the person is being quoted properly.
  • Journalism articles need to be unbiased, and as a copyeditor you will ensure that the article is unbiased rather than focused on just one point of view in the story.


If you are editing short stories, novels and plays for writers, you should consider the following as a copyeditor.

  • Ensure that the writing has tense consistency. Writers will often switch their tense around, which can lead to problems for readers to understand the work.
  • Writers will often use certain words over and over throughout their work. It is your job as the copyeditor to remove words that are used too much by the writer. This will improve the quality of the written work.
  • With a style sheet, you need to be able to keep character names, actions, place names and other plot points consistent throughout the book.


If you are working for a company as a copyeditor, editing grants and business reports, then you should consider the following for this specialty.

  • If you are editing a grant, make sure that all the details are in the paper and that things are not left out.
  • Mark all typos and poor grammar problems to ensure that the paper looks professional. Grants are often rejected if they are poorly written.
  • As a copyeditor for a grant, you need to ensure that the numbers are accurate and not fabricated. This is all about ensuring that the grant contains factual data.
  • When you are copyediting business reports, the business report must be written for the intended audience. As the copyeditor, you will make notes on the report if it is felt that the language is too complex for the readers of the report. For example, too much technical information for company owners who deal more with finances than computers often has to be rewritten.
  • Business reports must be very professional so all errors must be removed and the reports must be very formal rather than casual.
  • A business report copyeditor will mark vague language in the business report, as well as any wordiness that can be removed.

Proofing Magazines and Newspapers

In this section we will delve much further into this important and highly profitable field of copyediting.

Magazine Copyediting

The magazine copyeditor will be the only person who reads the magazine from cover to cover, without skimming through it, before any customer would see it. This can be a very long job for a copyeditor, but it is vitally important for the magazine. Everything must be perfect in a magazine because if there are any problems it can mean lost business, and in some extreme cases, lawsuits.

The copyeditor must go through the magazine with a checklist looking at various parts of the magazine.

  1. Is the volume number correct?
  2. Is the issue number correct?
  3. Is the information on the spine spelled correctly?
  4. Is the date on the spine correct?
  5. Is the font on the cover of the magazine correct?
  6. Is the spelling on the cover of the magazine perfect?
  7. Are there any claims on the cover that could be deemed as libel?
  8. Is the price on the cover correct?
  9. Is the table of contents correct and do the page numbers point to the right pages?
  10. Do captions under the photos line up with the photos? Are any captions, or photos, missing?
  11. Are there any mistakes in headlines, quotes, sidebars or diagrams in the articles?
  12. If an article points a reader to another page in the magazine, does it point to the correct page?
  13. Are there any page numbers duplicated, skipped or simply missing?

Things Copyeditors Monitor in Magazines

When a copyeditor is looking through a magazine, beyond what was just mentioned in the checklist, there are several things that a copyeditor will look for:

  • The copyeditor must look at the style of the magazine to ensure that it follows the style guide of the magazine, as well as the Chicago Manual of Style. The style must be consistent throughout the magazine because any deviation will be picked up by readers and this looks unprofessional.
  • Copyeditors need to find all the problems with punctuation, spelling, grammar and syntax to ensure that nothing is out of the ordinary within the articles. Spell-checkers on the computer can help, but they are not perfect and they will miss "typos" (words spelled correctly but used in the wrong context). This is why it is important for you to look through the magazine manually to find any problems.
  • The copyeditor should go through the facts in the articles of the magazine to ensure everything is accurate. Statistics need to be double-checked, quotes need to be verified and the integrity of the article must be maintained. As a copyeditor, you will need to research what the writer researched to verify it is actually true.
  • As the copyeditor, you need to ensure that the article is clear and concise, with all the proper information and nothing that could be deemed as "fluff".

The Step-by-Step Process

In order to edit the magazine properly, follow these steps:

  1. Read through the magazine completely from beginning to the end. Look to see if the article provides the right tone for the subject and make sure the article is going to be something popular and attractive to readers.
  2. Look at the article to make sure that the structure of the article flows, and that the article is in the active voice. Does the article ask the right questions and does it answer those questions? If you are unsure about any information, question it and find out from the writer more about the information.
  3. Use a style sheet to ensure that there are no improper words, grammatical errors, or spelling errors in the magazine. If something is worded poorly or not following the style sheet, you will need to rewrite it or note it for the writer to fix.
  4. If you must, cut the length of the article by eliminating any extra words that are not relevant to the article as a whole. If you do want to take something out, be sure to talk to the writer to ensure they are okay with the changes and the changes will not make the article less flowing.
  5. Begin the fact-checking of the magazine by researching the information in it with verifiable resources. Wikipedia is a great resource but it is not something that you can verify. Instead, use the footnotes in Wikipedia to verify the information within the article.

Newspaper Copyediting

A lot of the information above can be used in newspaper copyediting, but there are some other things to consider. In order to copyedit a newspaper, follow these steps:

  1. Read over the article a couple times before you edit it. This allows you to get an idea for the flow and tone of the article, which can help you ensure that when you do edit the article, you do not change the flow of the article.
  2. Check the newspaper for typos, spelling mistakes and any grammatical errors that may arise. This is especially true for press releases that are written by companies, and may not follow style sheets.
  3. Verify the information of all the quotes in the articles in the newspaper.
  4. Make the necessary notes on the article for the writer to change, but be sure to talk to the writer about anything you may not understand.
  5. Verify all the facts and figures within the newspaper. You do not want to have any incorrect information because this ruins the credibility of the newspaper, even if it is by accident.
  6. Verify everything against the editorial policy of the newspaper. Sometimes there are editorial policies that put restrictions on certain issues and people, as well as places. No matter the policy, you need to ensure that the articles within the newspaper follow them.
  7. Make sure that the headlines are catchy and correct.

Finding A Newspaper Bias

One of the most important duties of a copyeditor is to ensure that the articles within a newspaper are not biased against one position. A newspaper article (not an opinion piece) must be completely unbiased and if you have biased articles, it can cost your readers your credibility. Follow these tips to find a bias in the newspaper:

  1. Take notes within the article to identify the "who", "what", "when", "where", "why" and "how". If there is any information missing in the article to balance it, make a note of it.
  2. Look to see if you could rewrite the article, using the same information, to create a different angle to the story.
  3. Analyze how the writer deals with the people they are writing about. This is based heavily on the words used. For example, are some people identified as "looting" in the article, while others are identified as "trying to find food"? Are some people "claiming" in the article, while others are "explaining"?
  4. Look at the tone of the article to determine if the information is balanced, or if the writer's opinion is getting into the article.
  5. If there are buzzwords in the article, it may be an indication that the article is biased.
  6. In the article, does the author label some people as a certain group and is this group not represented well in the article?
  7. Does the writer provide quotes and viewpoints from both sides of the issue?
  8. How are the people in pictures portrayed? If a group is vilified in an article and in pictures, it is a serious problem.
  9. Are the statistics that are in the article something that can be verified or do the statistics come from only one side of the parties in the article?
It can be hard to find a bias in an article, but the more you look for it, the easier it will be to find.