Writing a World Building Style Guide

Bible_and_Key_Divination.jpgToday, I wanted to talk about style guides. No, not the Chicago Manual of Style.  I’m talking about self-generated style guides that serve as a bible for your universe(s). I’ve been working with the Human Legion recently, and I’ve spent some time organizing world building notes spanning multiple authors. Different authors, writing different series, but in the same universe.

The solution, for me, was apparent — compile the notes and make a style guide to ensure consistency. This was easier said than done. Let’s talk about how to make one, what it can do, and potential information to keep within it.

A style guide, for those of you unfamiliar, is a tool to create consistency throughout a story, world, or universe. It is tremendously helpful to an editor, because it will show them invented words, character information, and world background. We’ve talked about World Builder’s Disease before, a style guide is a great place to dump the info filling your brain.

World Builder's Disease MemeIt should be noted, some of this information is only useful if you are writing within a large world or universe. Depending on the scope of your work, you may not need an elaborate style guide. It would be useful to create a short style guide for an editor. This becomes more essential if you have created words or are utilizing an odd stylistic device.

Before I jump into what to include, I wanted to mention how a style guide will save you time. When I first started working with the Legion, they had tons of reference documents. These documents were contained within multiple folders, spread out between authors. I’m talking about more than thirty folders, and many individual documents within.

This became a battle of navigation for me. How many arms and fingers does this alien race have?  A simple question, really. So, I would open up the shared folders, begin navigation, move from one author to another, search differently labeled folders, and maybe I would find the info…or maybe not.

Waiting for an Email

You might be saying, “Why not just contact the author?” Good point! Unless they are on a completely different timezone or work schedule. For me, the more time I spend working the manuscript and not on the phone, the faster things get done.

Usually, the info was there, I just couldn’t locate it quickly among the massive archive of folders. Plus, I have proclivity to over-organize. There is nothing wrong with organizing your files however you want. If it works for you as the writer, don’t change anything.  But as the editor, I needed a more intuitive and rapid way to find information.

While the writers and fans of the Human Legion have done an outstanding job of creating infopedias (Official Infopedia, Fan Wiki), much of the information within the style guide is secretive in nature. Hidden motivations, planet histories, and tasty spoilers. It’s intel the writers understand, but the readers don’t need to know about…not yet. As one of the editors, I needed to reference these notes to help steer the ship.

moon footprint.jpgSo began the first step: compiling all of these pertinent documents into a universal source. One that would contain all of the information hyperlinked. Now, if I need to know how many arms and fingers an alien has, I click Alien Species in the table of contents (hyperlinked), scroll the alphabetized list, click the species in question (again, hyperlinked), and viola.

Format. Much like a webpage with clickable links, if you can add navigation within the style guide, you win the prize. I use Word, which allows for linking within the document. This might seem excessive, but after compiling the needed information into a living document (i.e. it will keep growing) the word count was around 15k for the style guide.  If I relied on scrolling to navigate, it would take forever.

What should you put in the style guide?

A Refined List

Character Name List. A listing of character names, properly spelled, makes the gods of writing smile. Especially, when you have tons of characters. Non-human species seem to generate the most inconsistency — a standard helps.

Once a character name list has been generated, you can begin hyperlinking supporting documents (characters sheets, sketches, etc). This made life really easy for me.

Corey question: the character’s eye color has changed from blue to green…what is the correct color?  Answer: Table of Contents -> Character List -> Click Character (confirm spelling) -> read character sheet.

Technology List. Holy bologna, this is a massive list for the Legion (and one I need to update). Depending on your genre, you may have invented technology. If it’s military sci-fi, then the technology probably has corresponding acronyms. Some of it might be written as a proper noun, some of it might not be. Whatever you decide as the writer, there needs to be consistency. Listing how these should appear is a step in the right direction.

Science_and_Invention_Nov_1928_Cover_2.jpgLocation List. Sweet mothers milk, another sprawling list. If your story spans cities, continents, planets, or farther, it might be wise to start compiling these locations and linking supporting documents. There will always be the handful of readers who say, “Wait a minute! Isn’t Planet D’s sun too intense without the aid of an exoskeleton?” If the reader has sunk into your world well enough to notice things like this, you owe it to them to be consistent.

Invented Word List. My favorite!  Nothing will blow Word’s circuits like a ton of invented words being thrown into the mix. Invented words, within reason, are one of the spices that make a universe unique. Just be sure to list those words. It might be wise to mention if only one person, species, or planet uses these words too.

Acronym List. Holy alphabet soup, Batman! This will probably only be useful to those of you who are writing in certain genres. An alphabetical listing of acronyms, backronyms, and initialisms makes me want to river dance. It becomes ten times more important when you are inventing these.

alienSpecies List.  Have you unleashed new races and species on your manuscript? Cool. You might want to compile a list and start linking reference documents. Remember the question above about how many arms and fingers an alien would have? This list solves those problems before they begin.

Basic Grammar and Punctuation Section. This is more of an editing thing, but if you find yourself working collaboratively with someone from another country, you might want to flush out the differences. British and American styles differ. The goal, especially if you are collaborating on the same book, is to achieve consistency of style.

question-markThat’s it for today! I’m curious about what methods you all use to compile and organize your universe notes. Do they exist in a jumble of folders, or have you found a way to compile them intuitively? I’d love to talk about it and pick up some pointers. Until we cross quills again, keep reading, keep writing, and as always — stay sharp!

28 responses

  1. Pingback: Writing a World Building Style Guide #Wrtr2Wrtr | Words Can Inspire the World

  2. I’m a fan of folders and sub folders. I have a “book” folder or in Perception of War’s case, a Universe Folder. Then I break information up. I have a “magic system” folder, a character folder. I’ve just created a scenes and descriptions folder. I have a planet folder. I’m still not where I want to be organizationally. Right now I have seven different documents open just to write Sojourn, which is looking to be between 20 and 30 thousand words. It gets worse when I look at other stories. I’m still figuring it all out, but if I didn’t have different “project” folders, I’d be helpless.
    This is a great post, and definitely something authors should do.

    Liked by 4 people

    • The nice thing about having those folders and subfolders, is it won’t take any time at all to compile those reference documents into a master document (if you ever choose to do this). You mentioning having six documents open at once is exactly why I tried to create a more simplified process.

      The last manuscript I was working on was about 100k, and in markup mode it had notes from four different people in the margins. Due to this, my computer was starting to experience lag while working. By only having two documents open on the computer, and ensuring they were separated from the internet (Dropbox, Google Docs, etc), it allowed me to work on the document with more efficiency.

      Also with my two monitors, I can have the manuscript open on one monitor and the style guide open on the other. I couldn’t believe how much faster this process became. I was able to quickly reference world buildings notes, character details, and other information.

      The other way it saves time is that there is only one document to look through. Once the information is hyperlinked, all you have to do is click the section in the table of contents and you are there.

      It took some front end work, but now that the backbone is built, it’s rapid. If the authors create a new world, word, species, character, or piece of tech, I simply add it to the corresponding section (each section lists contents alphabetically) and hyperlink it. Starting at the table of contents, two clicks and I have the info. No searching, no opening documents — just two clicks.

      Given time is currency, it’s been invaluable. Speaking of invaluable things, I was super excited to see the preview of Caught. The typesetting and icons look beautiful. Can’t wait to hold a copy in my hand (signed by you, of course).

      Liked by 2 people

    • Doing it from day one…oh, the process will be so much easier if it’s done from day one.

      If only you had an editor who could do this for you…oh wait! On a serious note, I would just keep doing the notes how you have been doing them, and I will compile a new style guide when the time comes and add them. I have a basic backbone built, so it won’t take any time to convert it to a new series.


      Liked by 1 person

  3. Universe by committee, with writers who AREN’T mindlinked to one another? What a daunting task!

    At the moment, we have separate folders for each story/series, but since there’s some overlap of characters, I suspect we’ll end up combining the folders/lists eventually. We just keep a lot of the details in our heads, though. (This is not a system that would work for most people, I think.) This list of character names, etc., for The Remnant and its sequels (with one line for every named character, no matter how minor) is about five pages long, and — wow! — he’s got a full forty words on “Machine Intelligence,” not to be confused with “artificial intelligence.” (Sample entry from series bible: “Neo-Panther – bio-engineered panther-form human clone with sophisticated bone and brain implants. The higher mind of a neo-panther is kept in a dormant state until the human beastmaster can imprint his mind and personality psionically upon the animal. Originally created to fight the massive alien Homndruu, a mature neo-panther can mass as much as four hundred kilograms. There are never more than two dozen beastmaster teams in the Federation at any time. The required combination of psionic abilities are too rare for more.”)

    Timelines/history of a setting are our weakness. My brother keeps… changing his mind on WHEN certain events happened, relative to others, and that makes it difficult for ME to write any peripheral stories, not to mention what it does to checking for consistency while editing. (“What do you mean, Eliza isn’t his aunt? Does anyone else know this…?”)

    Liked by 2 people

    • I need to get a Neo-Panther. My cat just sits around, and when it decides to contribute, the fuzzball tries to walk on the keyboard when I’m working.

      The mind link (or lack thereof) is exactly why I went ahead with the style guide. I was doing a fair amount of rewrites as part of the structural edit. Mostly, I was adding description and setting elements when needed.

      (Normally, I wouldn’t do the rewrites myself. I’d just tag sections and offer suggested solutions. Due to the deadline, I did the rewrites and verified them with the author afterwards.)

      This, for me, doesn’t take a huge amount of time. The issue of time management came into play when I would ask a question and it would have to go through multiple people. The style guide let me build standards from which I could pull description, that were agreed upon by everyone already. I think it also helped the writers better understand their shared vision.

      I’ve been fortunate with the timeline. The individual I’ve been working with keeps a very rigid timeline (even adding a date and time of day tag to chapter openings). This REALLY helped me spot inconsistencies in flow, and let me add descriptive environmental elements when needed.

      Thanks for sharing the clone process with me and for reading/reblogging. The thing I mentioned in an email a while ago (not the short story, the other thing) will be coming to fruition here in the very near future. I’ll be sending you a follow up email with details.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Reblogged this on Michael Seidel, writer and commented:
    Oh, yes. This is so true. I’d never heard this referenced as a style guide before. For me, it’s the bible, the background info to the characters, settings, plots and worlds. I’m pleased to learn others must keep a spelling and grammar guide as well. Cool post, and well worth reading.

    Liked by 2 people

    • The bible does sound far more regal, I must admit. Did you compile all the notes into a master Word document, or do you organize them in a different manner? I’d be curious to know, as I’m always looking to streamline and organize.

      Thanks for taking the time to read and for reblogging!

      Liked by 2 people

      • There is one overall doc that acts as a master index. Punctuation and spelling decisions for consistency are included here, along with general definitions and a list of terms and references, and a rough overview of the major plot and pivot points. This doc then points to other docs as needed. The other docs are generally about one specific realm – deep character dives, greater history and setting descriptions, maps, etc.

        The first doc is called . For example, I’m working on ‘Long Summer’. The bible is called ‘Long Summer Thinking’. It generally starts as a thinking exercise about whats and whys. It develops into a formal doc with headings and sub-headings by subjects to help me find information quickly. As another illustration about how this works, I developed something called the ideopat. The ideopat has its own, formal document called ‘Ideopat thinking’. The bible, ‘Long Summer Thinking’ has all the ideopat terms listed in it under the terms and definitions section, but all include the comment, ‘See Ideopat Thinking for more information’.

        The other docs are usually more free form. I start them outside of the first one because the empty doc frees me from structure and loosens my imagination. I will many times organize them after the fact and add them into the original doc, but keep the original. When I do this, I put a highlighted note on the original that I do that.

        As a final comment, I keep the separate docs because it’s easier to move between them rather than moving back and forth in one doc. I tried combining all into one doc and open separate doc windows, but that generated some confusion and frustration.

        All of this is to help me stay organized and consistent and enables finding more information quickly.

        Liked by 2 people

      • I appreciate you mapping out the process. For my own current work, I work in a very similar manner. Of course, my own work isn’t in a sprawling world full of invented places, words, technology, and people.

        I’m a simple man, who writes simple post-apocalyptic fiction. I fear if I attempted to create a sprawling universe, I would simply fall into world building coma. I’d sit down at my computer and get Rip Van Winkle’d (I’d look in the mirror and see I’ve aged into an old man).

        While I love reading about complex worlds and universes, I just don’t think I could tackle something like that. Makes me happy to work for as an editor for those who can. At least I can pretend to be a piece of something grand in scope 🙂

        Thanks again for sharing.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Writing a World Building Style Guide — Quintessential Editor – LARPBook

  6. Great post! I’ve done the vast majority of my world building for my Halcrest verse–and I wrote two of the novels in that world with other authors, so I needed to share a lot of details with them. (Both of those novels are in final edits.) Thus far, we’ve been using Evernote, which has worked pretty well. I’ll probably move to a private blog just for me and the co-authors, however, that I’ll back up periodically.

    Liked by 2 people

    • You’ve just hit me with a bolt of inspiration. Using a collaborative blog and granting access only to those involved is such an ingenious idea. Given the blog already has so many built in features, and tools to organize, this might be a great secondary solution.

      Seriously, brilliant.

      I’ve not heard of Evernote, so I will take a look at this for sure. You always offer the best advice! Thanks for sharing your thoughts and for reading 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Generally, I do a single Word document with a system generated ToC. But, I don’t write shared world and mostly stick to fantasy & urban fantasy, so it’s a bit different.

    That said, I’ve never really found editing other people’s F/SF to be all that difficult (recently working with 2 aspiring urban fantasy writers and an aspiring super heroes novelist). As content editor, I don’t need to know the inner workings & hidden info. If things don’t make internal sense, or internal consistency, it’s typically obvious. Ex. in the one writer’s case above, people teleported all over the place; then they headed out on a mission and suddenly needed a helicopter to get there, with no explanation why.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for taking the time to explain the method you employ. One of the authors I work with calls your helicopter example a logic bomb. I was reading some of his notes (things he wanted me to pay close attention to) when I was sent a manuscript, and he listed logic bombs. Not wanting to look super green, I began searching the internet and my countless books on editing to find a reference to logic bombs…to no avail.

      Then, I stumbled across a university video, and the professor explained it beautifully. My mind snapped to the countless 80’s movies I watched where the villain and good guy met at the end. One of the two was out of bullets. Instead of shooting the other, and ending the threat, whoever had bullets left would toss their gun aside and commence a fisticuff session. Logically, it makes no sense. When it comes to writing, this sort of dramatic effect plays out even worse.

      Anyways, side tangents aside, I appreciate you reading and sharing your experiences. Best of luck to you with the aspiring writers! For me, there are few things more rewarding than seeing authors I’ve helped get published. I wish you well in this endeavor.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. In the case of my Earplug characters – there are so many now (after twenty volumes) that I can’t remember the names of more than twenty-five per cent of them. I’ll need to set up a list with an accompanying photo for each entry. Ye gods, what a task!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I bet that would make a fun book! The illustrated guide to the characters in your universe. Each page showing a photo and offering a brief bio and background. If anything, it’d be a great source for you to use to organize it all.

      Good luck managing the madness!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Very interesting article! I also like all the comments.
    You asked about whether we have a style guide. Oh, yes – even my journals from the last twenty years are referenced in case there is something obscure I want to use from one of them.
    I am curious about where you place mathematics. I have found I need a separate folder just for that. For example, I have a map of my world and along with the map, I have calculated the distances between key locations and the time to travel from one to another, depending on the mode of transportation.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I’m fortunate in that my story happens on the the planet we all reside on. This makes calculating those distances very simple.

      JR Handley, one of the writers at the Human Legion, took the planet they created and entered it into a fractal mapping program. From this, he is able to use the map to determine distances. This has been very useful in problem solving and making the traversing of distances realistic.

      I’m going to try to keep my feet planted on Earth in my own writing!


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