I’ve been doing quite a few proofreading jobs here lately (I tell everyone I dislike proofing because, you know, it’s not cool and only the nerdy kids get stuck with the job, but I actually enjoy it–it makes my inner nitpicker happy. So fine, I’m a word nerd, shaddup already). I’ve asked a few writers if they have style sheets for me to use. I’ve been getting blank stares in response. I finally realize “style sheet” sounds high falutin’ and fancy pantsy.
Let’s call it a “Cheat Sheet” instead.
Despite using computers for writing since the 1980s, I’m still very much a pen and paper kind of gal. Which accounts for much of the mess on my desk (watch for a future post on how Scrivener is finally breaking me of the paper habit). For my cheat sheets, I use a sheet of drawing paper (or two, depending), divvy it up into eight blocks and label the blocks alphabetically–A-B-C; D-E-F… and so on. Then, when I run across a proper name, a place name, preferred spellings, and other details easy to misspell or overlook, I jot them down in the appropriate block. That way, as I go through a manuscript, all I have to do is glance at the cheat sheet to make sure the usage is consistent.
That, my friends, is what it boils down to: consistency.
When I proofread, I’m looking for goofs and typos and missing or misplaced punctuation. I’m also looking for consistency. For instance, preferred spellings. Some words have two or more accepted spellings. The word “gray,” for example, which can also be spelled “grey.” It doesn’t matter which spelling you, the writer, choose to use. What matters is that the spelling remains the same throughout the manuscript. I also note how the writer uses capitalization. While a contemporary story might stick with standard capitalization, a fantasy novel or speculative fiction might use unusual constructs. I jot those down on the cheat sheet. The same thing goes for italics. I can usually get a very good feel for the writer’s style after only a few pages–always uses italics for direct thoughts (for instance), or only uses them in dialogue to emphasize speech, or italicizes foreign words in dialogue, but not in narrative. Once I see the pattern, I make a note of it, so I can check for consistency throughout.
Timelines are also useful. If your story is like the TV show, “24″ and depends on split-second timing, or if dates are very important to the plot, a timeline can help the proofreader help you. You meant to write “one week ago,” but a brain fart made you write, “one month ago.” With a timeline, the proofreader can note the inconsistency and ask you about it.
So, indies, you’ll have better results working with a proofreader if you provide a cheat sheet. The process will go faster and be much more efficient. It’s easy to whip up a chart in a spread sheet, or type up an alphabetical list. If you’re using unusual spellings or constructions, make a note.
Your preference in grammatical style is also a good thing for the proofreader to know. My fall back on questions of usage and style is my old Webster’s 9th, which is basic and standard. It is, however, over thirty years old and grammar styles do change. So it’s not so much a matter of correct or incorrect if you use serial commas or not, or which style of possessive you use, or if you spell out numbers or use numerals. The key is always consistency. If you follow a particular style manual or a style guide on the internet, let the proofreader know. That way when they have a grammar question, the proofreader can reference your source.
A little note about unusual styles and grammar usages. As an indie who doesn’t have to conform to a publisher’s in-house style, you are free to experiment. Try to keep the readers in mind while you do so. It’s all well and good to try something nobody has tried before. Who knows? If it works, maybe others will emulate you. If your unusual construction or “creative” use of punctuation confuses or frustrates readers, then the experiment is a failure. A good copy editor or proofreader will point that out and you’d be wise to listen.