Tag Archives: Consistency

Style Sheets, and the Recipe of Writing for Recipes

The Nitty Gritty

I have hundreds of recipes pinned to dozens of Pinterest boards, so I come across a wide range of offerings.  Nowadays, the images have to be perfectly lit and photoshopped to make them look appealing; it’s like sugar in pre-packaged foods… we’ve gotten so used to the artificial visual flavour that if a photo were undoctored in some way, it would be glaringly out of place.  But what is often missing is the same attention to detail in the writing.  I’ve seen “tablespoon” misspelt a few ways, or the abbreviations as Tbs., tb, tbs, tbsp, T., etc. So which one is correct?  And do the forms or the etiquette of choices differ between print and online versions?

I pulled out a cross-section of cookbooks in my library and thumbed through them; I took older, newer, American and British, and I scoured online recipe sites like Betty Crocker; here’s what I discovered:

  • When writing a cookbook for a printed version, editors/publishers tend to write out the entire word [tablespoon, teaspoon, cup, pound, ounce, etc.].
  • The two most standard contractions for tablespoon are Tbs. and tbsp.  They can be ended with a period or not; I would tend to do it so that the contraction looks intentional and not a typo!  I grew up learning Tbs. for tablespoon and tsp. for teaspoon.  To each his own.
  • Blogs that are a collection of recipes, or allow contribution from subscribers, will have a hodgepodge of abbreviations and contractions because it’s simply too difficult to keep on top of such issues.  Even professional sites such as Betty Crocker have gotten sloppy about it; for example, they often (but not always) spell out words like tablespoon, and then suddenly revert to contractions for pounds and ounce within the same recipe.  Consistency should be the golden standard if nothing else is.
  • Recipe instructions are written in the imperitive mood (bake this, stir that, knead this, eat with that, etc.).  You’ll never find 1st, 2nd or 3rd person pronouns within the instructions of a recipe; at most, you’ll find them in the short intro before a recipe begins.
  • In a printed book, NEVER does a recipe instruction include the ramblings about the cat in the kitchen, or what you changed about the recipe, or what you’re doing that’s unrelated to the topic at hand.  If you’re writing a personal blog, that’s a matter of personal preference; I tend to want the recipe itself streamlined to make it easier to read on the fly in the kitchen, but maybe that’s just pragmatic ol’ me.  If there are additional notes or something I’ve changed about a recipe for my own blog, I tend to put that in the introduction and not in the actual recipe, but there’s not a set rule – it depends on where it’s warranted or relevant.

As with any kind of writing, some things are a matter of personal preference; at that point, where there is no one grammar rule to apply, the most important thing is to be consistent throughout the manuscript.

Style Sheets

If you’re thinking of writing a cookbook (or any other manuscript for that matter!), I would recommend keeping what is called a style sheet; this is used in publishing houses where several people will have the manuscript in hand at some point; this sheet prevents someone else from undoing choices – they can look at the style sheet and know that it was an intentional decision, and leave it; otherwise the risk is that one man’s capital is another man’s lower case, and so on.

As an author, the style sheet is my running list of decisions to keep me on track as I  write; it can include sections for punctuation (have I decided to go with British or American English punctuation for things like Mr / Mr.?), unusual capitalisations (for me, one issue was when to capitalise “sir” as a substitute for a proper name – I could always refer to my sheet when in doubt), abbrevitation/contraction choices, etc.  It could also include a record of my choice of fonts, spacing between sections, indentations, and so on.  I have a section for my “cast of characters” – to remember how I’ve spelled a name, or what I’ve named an infrequent cast member. I might include an abbreviated description of a character so that I don’t give them green eyes in chapter one, and blue eyes in chapter ten.  What you can include in your style sheet is endless… foreign terms/spellings, reminders to check validity of hyperlinks, punctuations such as en- and em-dashes, how you’ve written specific gadgets (capitalised or not, hyphened or not, etc.).  Below is a basic style sheet template to get you started.

No matter what you’re working on, hone your craft, and keep writing!

Copy-Editing - Style Sheet

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The 3 Levels of Editing

EditingWriting is not just about stringing words together to express a coherent thought; at that level one might say it’s primary school basics.  The deeper I delve into the written world of words, the more I recognize the shades of colour, light and moods, and the fact that when I am telling a story, I am really painting a picture.  But to get to that depth, besides the fundamental skills of telling a good story, every writer needs to be familiar with what I consider to be three basic levels of editing; there’s a wide palette for discussion, and the order below is not chronological but often simultaneous phases of editing.  Here are a few points to keep in mind:

1:  The Matrix Level

I call this the “Matrix Level” because it really is the foundation – without it, don’t even think about giving up your day job.  This level includes things like spelling, vocabulary (choosing the best word or phrase in a given situation) and punctuation.  At this level you might also include things like formatting (being consistent in usage of fonts; spacing; size and heading styles; margins; indentations; double-or single-spacing after a full stop; capitalizations; abbreviations [e.g. Mr. or Mr {that choice depends on whether or not you’re using American Standard English, or British Standard English}]; and consistent use of italics, bolds and underlines).

2:  The 3-C Level

This is what I call the 3-C level because it’s just that:  Coherency, Consistency, Conciseness.  This is the level you work on things like clear expression; showing, not telling (re-writing those scenes that tell into a scene that shows the action or the purpose of that scene); assessing what your demographic target is (teenagers, women, men, children, intellectual readers, pulp-fiction readers, genre-specific groups, etc.) and writing with them in mind as you make choices of expression and complexity.

This level includes things like pacing/timing/rhythm of the overall script; logical connections, organic changes, filling in the “holes” in the plot, the building of action or tension (again, in an organic way to the story—don’t just slap in a sex scene or a car chase because you need to pick up the pace in a dragging scene!), and keeping an eye out for things like vocabulary repetition (if it’s there, it needs to be organic, e.g. perhaps a character likes to use a phrase as a “trademark”) or filler words (actually, really, etc.).

3:  The “Cutting Room Floor” Level

This is the level where tough decisions come in; here you need to ask yourself some basic questions:  Does scene XYZ support the plot in more than one way?  [Plot, by the way, applies whether you’re writing a novel, a business case plan, or a newspaper article.]  If not, can I glean the core sentiment or information that needs to be conveyed and splice it in somewhere else?  Does the purpose / goal come through or remain clear in this scene?  If not, how can I change it, trim it, or chop it?  Are paragraphs unified (i.e. one main goal / thought each)?  This process is very similar to film editing, and you can learn a lot from that process by listening to good film commentaries (the best I’ve come across are films with commentaries by Steven Spielberg – he’s a natural teacher in that respect!).

In the current novel I’m writing, a fantasy-history spanning from first century AD Scotland and Norway to modern-day Scotland, an earlier draft had too many characters; there are still enough to warrant a Cast of Characters section at the end (due to the complex structure that will be woven together in the next draft), but the general rule is to not tax the reader with more than four characters in any given scene.  So even though each character was well-developed and interesting, I had to let some heads roll.

The way I write works for me:  If I’ve written a scene that somehow doesn’t sit right with the tone/mood but I know it conveys something necessary to the construct as a whole, I will paste that scene to the end of the document and title it “Scene to Salvage: —” with a brief description.  Later I can go back to the core of that scene and salvage it, or decide that it no longer fits and delete it—it’s nonetheless served the purpose of helping me solidify the plot by hashing out certain elements.  I may really like one key sentence or idea, so I’ll cut it out and drop it in where it works well organically to the story.  I might also add that each of these levels is vital in this story as each section (Pictish; an otherworldly kingdom; Norse settlements; and modern archaeology) has its own colour palette:  Stone, rain and sea; mist, sky and whispers; leather, smoke and wood; and technology, pubs and peat mire.  Each sections’ dialogue and prose need to reflect those palettes, and that’s the secret of showing, not telling!

The more structured you work, and the more confident you become with each level, the better and faster the writing process will become.  I hope this inspires you, and spurs you on to greater writing!

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