Continuity errors drive us batty, especially when they’re our own. They’re most noticeable in films, for example when a character is wearing a hat in one shot but not in another shot during the same scene. But such errors happen in books, too, and must be rooted out during editing. One way to avoid them is to use a style sheet.
You can create your style sheet as you write, or you can leave it until after you’ve finished the rough draft. I do some of my style-sheet building as I go, but a lot doesn’t get done until later.
List the name and description of every character. This will help prevent continuity errors like the heroine having blue eyes in one place and green eyes in another. Of course, if you’re writing science fiction and she gets an eyeball transplant, that might be part of the story. Note on the style sheet when she gets the transplant. This would also go for characters who cut or dye their hair or make other changes to their appearance. You might have a note like after page 115, her hair is blond.
Consider listing places as well, especially if you’re writing speculative fiction, historical, or any other genre where the settings are complex and unfamiliar.
Your style sheet can also include things you make up for your storyworld. Tolkien’s style sheet would have included entries for lembas and mithril. You can also include English words that are unusual, or used in an unusual way. My style sheet for Alara’s Call included conformation, an equestrian term, and shall, an old-fashioned English word that I use in parts of my stories in place of will, a use that’s slightly different from the norm. (See Daily Writing Tips for the difference between will and shall.)
You’ll refer to and update the style sheet throughout the revision and editing process.
When you turn your book in to your publisher, or your freelance copyeditor if you’re self-publishing, give them a copy of the style sheet. It won’t help with hats or other items that inexplicably appear or disappear, but it will help them ensure, for example, that lembas is always spelled correctly.
Style sheets aren’t just for novelists. They are just as important to memoirists and other nonfiction writers, especially if you have a bunch of people or places to keep track of. Even if you don’t, a style sheet will be useful in guaranteeing consistent spelling of industry jargon or other specialized terms. Also use it to record your choices when a word has more than one correct spelling, such as adviser versus advisor.
Now you’ve finished your first draft and have at least started your style sheet.
If you’re not under a deadline, let the manuscript sit while you work on something else. Take a vacation. Give yourself some time off so you can return to the manuscript with fresh eyes. Usually I recommend two to four weeks. But I’ll be back next week to talk about what we’ll do when we come back to that rough draft.