Style Guides

Style guides are one of the most important tools in an editor’s arsenal. They help guide us when making decisions to ensure the text, after our edits, is still in the author’s voice.

So, what is a style guide?

Maybe the best way to explain this is to give an example. Below is a passage I’ve written with several inconsistencies in style. See if you can spot all the inconsistencies, and any other elements which may be defined by either regional or stylistic preferences.

Anne stepped into the sunlight and looked around. There were few houses here, maybe only 10 or fifteen, but those that did exist were big and painted with vibrant colours. She recognized the street—her old school was here. She had studied music at that place for years. Back then, she had spent hours a day practising – on the weekdays at least. Her parents hadn’t known, but her and her friends had, on the weekends, ditched practice for more fun things like skating, swimming or jumping between theaters and cafés.

‘Hey Anne’, she turned to see a man wearing a blue jumper and red pants running down the centre of the road towards her. “Anne, it’s me, Jonathan!”

She didn’t recognize him, but he clearly recognised her, so she greeted him with a polite smile.

How many inconsistencies did you spot, and how many stylistic preferences did you identify? If you’d like to see the answers, you can find them at the bottom of this page.

Simply put, a style guide is a document that defines the author’s preferences when it comes to their writing – everything from spelling variations to how images, captions, and headings should be presented.

Spelling Variations

Spelling variations are often the easiest to define and are often done so based on the author’s region or the region they intend to market themselves in.

There are dozens of variations between UK and US spelling alone that may look odd to someone of the other region (think analyse/analyze; colour/color; defence/defense).

On top of this there are word which, from one region to the next, are entirely different. Does the word ‘pants’ mean underwear or trousers to you? To someone who speaks UK English, describing a person’s pants (underwear) could be seen as odd, or just plain funny!

To go a step deeper, there are also UK/US variations when it comes to grammar. Do you live ‘in’ or ‘on’ this street? Did you study science ‘at’ or ‘in’ school?


The second area on a style guide I’ll talk about is punctuation.

Are you a semi-colon fan? Do you prefer en-dashes (–) or em-dashes (—)? Is your speech in double (“”) or single (”) quotes?

And, to really test you, are you team serial/Oxford comma?

Like with spelling variations, some areas of punctuation can be influenced by your region. Ultimately, though, punctuation is a matter of author preference.


The third (and final) area I’ll talk about is layout.

How should your headings look: size 14? 16? In bold or underlined? What about lists, images, and tables? Should the first line of a paragraph be indented, and should the text be justified or unjustified; ranged left, right, or centred?

Are you worried about short lines, especially those at the top of a page?

Typesetters are the specialists when it comes to a professional layout, but the role of a proofreader is to ensure all of your style guide has been followed to the letter – even the layout!

There are plenty more points a style guide can cover, but I’d like to keep this to article length, not essay, so we’ll skip the rest.

Why should I have a style guide?

Consistency in spelling, punctuation, and layout can make a good prose really shine, allowing the reader to flow seamlessly from page to page without ever having to stop and think ‘hang on…’

You don’t have to make a style guide yourself (in fact, I offer to make one for you as part of my service), but if you are worried about the cost of hiring an editor of any kind, doing this bit of work can save you an hour or two of their time, and therefore an hour or two of their fees.

Remember: you know what you like – without a style guide, we have to figure it out!

How do I make one?

You may already know what you like in text – in which case, great! Now all you need to do is jot those preferences down and send them to your editor.

If you don’t know what you like, next time you open a book (your own or somebody else’s), be conscious of things like variant spelling, punctuation, and font. It’s okay to change your mind on all of these things over time, just be sure to tell your editor!

To help you get started, I’ve made a free sample style guide with examples and explanations where necessary.

If you’re curious whether you found all the inconsistencies in the passage, the answers can be downloaded below. Be sure to let me know how many you found!

Published by Conor Powell

I'm a freelance proofreader based in Cardiff, UK. I specialise in science-fiction and fantasy stories but work in every genre of fiction and non-fiction. When I'm not proofreading, I'm either working on my own stories, gardening, writing music, or climbing some rocks.

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