Styles – tools for consistency

Styles are a thing. They are reflected in how you write, the feeling the writing carries, how easy your readers can understand your message and formatting options. Styles help build communication and ease workflow. On a granular level we depend on consistent use of symbols to derive meaning. On a document level, clear hierarchy through body, subhead and heads organizes sections. Creating or following a content style yields professionalism.

Choosing a content style

English can be expressed in many ways. Like all communication, the main consideration is, “who is the audience?” Choosing American, Canadian or International English should be driven by your market. Canadian English libraries are available for most programs so your spell checker will quit flagging “centre” and help you be more consistent. Style choices are not right/wrong choices, but represent “this is how we do it here”.

If you are writing for a publication, become familiar with their house style. Style books can be helpful in writing for a particular audience and are likely the basis of a house style. Styles such as APA, Chicago and MLA are designed for academics. A Canadian source is the online The Canadian Style government site, which is now available at Writing Tips Plus.

Newspaper styles lean toward fewer commas, shorter paragraphs, embedded attribution and are generally more reader friendly. My  Canadian Press Stylebook from college days is 358 pages of small type without including the accompanying Caps and Spelling.

Style choices can be overwhelming, but in all this, we reduce noise for the reader.

Creating a document style sheet

A document style is similar to creating a dossier for your characters. Creating one guides the proofreader as well as the creator. Some considerations:

  • Define the style basis (house, MLA, CP, The Canadian Style, ... )
  • Case choice for heads, subheads
  • Outline the head, subhead, sub-subhead hierarchy
  • The Oxford comma (discouraged unless required for meaning)
  • Compound words: which are hyphenated, two words, or one word
  • Hyphen between double vowels such as co-op
  • Regional language: z or s, double lls, ou, ...
  • Which numbers are not typed out: under 10, grades, pages, scores, votes
  • Abbreviations: e.g. US or U.S.A., i.e., AI,
  • Dashes: em or en? Em dashes with no space are proper but I have always
    preferred en dashes with spaces on both sides. Hyphens draw, dashes separate
  • Punctuation inside quotation marks
  • Published works in italic (no quote marks)
  • Special words or uses

Consistent formatting

Markups have been with us for centuries. Typesetting required considerable craftsmanship
and offered little flexibility once completed. Fonts, leading and typeface were chosen for each element during the design phase and marked up in the manuscript margins. If copy-fitting wasn’t accurate, type would have to be reset. (My start in printing began as a floor compositor with a saw, marble table, proof press, job cases, and real galleys). 

As cold-type driven by computers and film matured in the 80s, markup moved from instructions for the typesetter to instructions for the computer. Markup was used to control the output of size, spacing, leading and typeface. Similar markup found its way into early word processors such as WordStar, and the CSS at the heart of your html display remains basically the same. Paragraph styles are essential for eBooks and the web.

Styles in your manuscript

A well designed hierarchy of body, subheads and heads creates grouping and helps us understand and organize the presented information.

default styles

Default styles in Libre Office or Word can organize your formatting.

Paragraph styles affect the entire paragraph and include a number of controls such as indent, space before or after, font style, size and spacing (leading), and keeps (where a paragraph starts or ends). Using pre-defined: Heading 1, 2, 3, 4; Body Text; Quotations; and creating limited styles for other special components is best. You can modify the styles or they will import and can be readily modified in a page layout program. Adjusting a style affects your entire document in a few minutes. There is great flexibility and consistency at the same time.

Manual overrides block the styles from doing their job. Let the computer control spacing and indents instead of inserting leading tabs or spaces to adjust alignment. If you adjust margins, size or almost anything on a line or paragraph basis, the manual formatting will need to be adjusted. If the manuscript is subsequently professionally formatted, the manual overrides will need to be stripped out.

Character styles apply to just the selected characters. Character styles are used primarily for hyperlinks and references where text should be different than the regular body. Again, they bring consistency and ease workflow. 

Using formatting styles

Book paragraph styles

All elements on this page are created with Paragraph and Character styles including the lines above and below the chapter number. As well, many are nested. The book tone or size can be changed in a few minutes if there are no images to contend with. 

In the example from InDesign above, a character style has been used for the drop cap. It is 80% of the font width to balance the weight with other elements and automatically applies when using the [*body text first] paragraph style. The body text styles are nested and if the font is changed on [*body text], other nested files take on the same changes. As long as styles are applied within the manuscript they can be edited to adjust the look and feel for the entire document.

Once the styles are setup for final formatting I recommend that you print a page as screens will not give you a true representation. We check a template in print before committing the entire document, and print a chapter and text page of incoming "print ready" files as part of initial checking.

The final look and feel does need to be checked in its final format. We print a "binder proof" as the final design stage for print books. EBooks are tested on both Kobo and Kindle readers as a final check.

Tech can be mundane but can pay big-time long-term. “Master your instrument, master the music, and then forget all that and just play,” – saxophonist Charlie Parker.