The Style Guide Is Your Friend

I was reading my Entertainment Weekly at lunch the other day (“12 Things You Never Knew About Harry Potter”) and was positively gobsmacked by number nine:

The Half-Blood Prince
9. To try to ensure consistency within the books, and keep track of characters, spells, and the like, Bloomsbury had to create an in-house file known as the HP bible.

Wait—what? In a fantasy series with dozens of characters and creatures and places and time periods, it was book six before anyone got around to making a style guide? I find this astonishing.

We’ve talked about the style guide already. It’s a requirement for a copyeditor. But what about the developmental editor—particularly the fiction editor?

Me, I make a pretty elaborate style guide for every novel I work on. Yeah. There are times when I wish I could get the project done a little faster, times when it feels like I spend more hours making style guides than reading manuscripts … but I have never regretted doing it. Because why take the chance of letting even one overlooked detail go to press?

Not if I can help it.

As noted in the previous post, the copyeditor’s style guide is reasonably straightforward: a set of rules that define the style elements and content of the book, and a list of words and phrases. Now take that concept and apply it to your novel.

That is, I will. As I read for a developmental edit, I start making lists of …

• Characters (names, descriptions, relationship to other characters).
• Places (names of towns, buildings, and so on).
• Days (a timeline) and other elements of time (what month or season is it?).
• Themes that emerge.
• I’ve even been known to draw maps of neighborhoods or imaginary countries based on what I read.
• I also make a very broad list of plot points.

Although I keep a completely different set of notes to use when I’m pulling together your editorial letter, I will more than likely refer to this fiction style guide too. Why? Unlike a character sketch you’ve probably written for yourself (or for the book proposal), my style guide reflects only what is on the page—which means plot and characterization holes can become evident to a watchful editor.

If I’m copyediting your novel, I’ll add lists of …

• Slang, idioms, foreign phrases
• Cultural references
• Unusual grammar and why you used it

… anything that will help me stay on top of a consistent presentation.

It’s a lot of work but it clarifies the milieu and helps me stay immersed in the story. I have an eye for detail—always have—but I work on one manuscript after another. The style guide puts me right back into your universe when you return the rewrite.

And when I know this is the first book in a trilogy or a series, it becomes important work indeed. I have been known to make spreadsheets with characters’ ages across an entire series of books, just to be sure the author and I get it right, book after book.

Which is why I was so surprised that no one on Rowling’s team had done this prior to the penultimate book. (Really?) I can’t imagine getting that far into it without my lists. But then … I’ve also read that readers found inconsistencies (ahem) in the Harry Potter books. Imagine that!

Tweet: The fiction editor and her style guide. Indispensible.
Tweet: Why take the chance of letting even one overlooked detail go to press?
Tweet: I have never regretted having a detailed style guide to hand.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”


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  1. […] « Short Saturday: Errors in Logic The Style Guide Is Your Friend » […]

  2. Karen Graham says:

    Ahh, Jamie! How I love your saucy, sometimes cranky posts! And so much fun to read a good old word like gobsmacked. Thanks for sharing!

    • jamiechavez says:

      Thank you! :) I learned gobsmacked from the irishman, of course. He’s been a veritable fount of excellent slang, not all of it usable in a family blog (ahem).

  3. So that’s how you kept up with the timeline in my books! :)

  4. I so love these posts – I get a glimpse into how a really fine editor works and it’s very cool to read. Thanks, Jamie! (I’ve had a rugged week — two nights in hospital and now a long, slow recovery from a really weird/rare event. But I’m alive to write about it, which I did in this week’s Tiny Letter. NOT fun.)

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  1. By On the Same Page: You, Me, and the Style Guide on 30 April, 2015 at 10:59 am

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