Last week, we talked about remedying the content and stylistic inconsistencies often found in large documents — specifically, the importance of getting a handle on how your final document should look before you begin writing. This week, we narrow the focus to talk about how to bridge the gap between your vision and the final product.
That’s where templates, style sheets and style guides come in handy. They allow you to create the stylistic elements you want and to apply them uniformly throughout the document to ensure unparalleled consistency. We provide an overview of these tools below, without detailing how to create them (online tutorials abound on how to create templates and style sheets in Word, and we’ll talk in a future post about how to develop your own style guide).
A template helps ensure a consistent look within and across documents with respect to margins, headers/footers, page numbering, tables/charts and other layout elements. When you open a blank document in Microsoft Word, that is the default template, with the margins and basic page elements already set.
You can modify those elements to your liking, save the document as your own template and then apply that template to all related documents (or supply it to your writers to do so).
While a template governs the document’s structure, a style sheet helps ensure consistency of its text elements (headings, body text, lists, table text, figures, captions, etc.).
Let’s say you want all your first-level headings to be bold, all capital letters, in 14-point Arial Black with 12 points of blank space above and below them. You simply create a style called First-Level Heading (or whatever makes sense to you) with all those attributes and save it in your style sheet. Then, when you want to format a first-level heading, you click anywhere in the heading, click the style in the style sheet and voilà … the heading appears as it should with all those attributes.
Not only does using styles save a tremendous amount of time because you don’t have to set the attributes for each instance of the heading, but you can easily change any style by modifying the desired attribute once and then applying it. All text tagged with the First-Level Heading style will be instantly modified to match the new style.
Another advantage of style sheets (templates too) is that, once created, they can be imported into new documents. So if you produce a similar type of report, say, bimonthly, you don’t have to create a new style sheet and template each time.
Lastly, if your final document will be laid out in a program other than Word (e.g., InDesign), the designer can create a style sheet in that program with names that correspond to those in the Word style sheet. Then, when the Word file is imported into InDesign, the styles should already be applied, thus saving even more time (and money) in the final stages.
Unlike a style sheet that exists within the word-processing or layout software, a style guide is a stand-alone document that is designed to encourage consistent usage. It typically details a company’s preferences regarding capitalization, spelling, hyphenation, punctuation, use of the company name, copyright guidelines and the like.
Style guides can range from one page to more than a hundred. The shorter ones often rely on a widely accepted guide such as the AP Stylebook or Chicago Manual of Style and will list only the company’s exceptions to those guides. Longer ones, in addition to providing detailed usage guidance, will sometimes include common acronyms or abbreviations, writing guidelines about style and tone, specific ways to refer to various individuals within the organization, and so on.
Regardless of length, the advantage of any style guide is that it gives writers and editors a common ground and, like the other tools mentioned above, goes a long way toward ensuring consistency.
What’s the Payoff?
Especially if you’re not familiar with how to create templates and style sheets in your word-processing or page layout program, investing the time in learning how to do that and in creating those elements may not seem worth the trouble. But the investment will pay off in spades in the long run.
If you’ll use the same template and style sheet time and again for future documents, the benefits are evident. But even if you have a unique document that you won’t ever produce again, these tools will help ensure consistency in that document and likely will save you time and money on multiple reviews. Plus, you’ll be able to apply what you’ve learned to future documents, not only expanding your skill-set but paving the way to a smoother production process.
And it makes the whole “herding cats” idea actually seem possible.
Let us know in the comments below about your experiences working with templates, style sheets and style guides, or about any questions you might have in relation to them.