Consistency Rules: An Easy Method to Improve Your Writing

If you don’t consider yourself a grammarian but love to write (or have to for academic or professional reasons), there’s an easy way to make sure your writing looks good. Be consistent.

While it’s important to use proper grammar and punctuation, one of the simplest ways to make sure your work looks polished is to be consistent. An editor fine-tunes her eyes to look for consistency in written works, and it’s important that you either work on this skill or outsource your public writing to someone who can do this for you. While you don’t need to master the Chicago, AP, APA, and MLA styles for documents you plan to publish or submit (unless it’s required), it’s good to identify certain components of your work that should remain consistent.

Here are five things to review in your document to ensure consistency:

  1. Capitalization. Are particular words capitalized the same way throughout the document? Check how you incorporate product names, personal names, professional titles, and organizations.
  2. Spelling. It’s important to spell words the same way throughout a document. While this seems obvious, the English language can be tricky, so double-check your treatment of compound words (did you use a hyphen once, break it into two words another time, and consolidate it in another instance?) For example, in a book I recently edited, the term twenty-something was hyphenated, though I could see someone breaking it into two words (twenty something) or even smashing it together (twentysomething) depending on personal style and the purpose of the document. When in doubt, use the dictionary as a final authority. Also, not to add complications, consider the part of speech of the compound too.
  3. Punctuation. Are you using the serial comma?  Are you using a three-dot ellipsis or three- and four-dot ellipses? When you need to use an apostrophe after a singular word that ends in s are you adding just an apostrophe or an apostrophe and an s (e.g., Henry James’ book or Henry James’s book?) Are you adding two spaces after a period? What about em dashes — are you adding spaces around them? Punctuation can be dubious and, while there are basic rules of American English to follow, you have some choices in punctuation.  Stick with a consistent method in your document.
  4. Formatting. Are you italicizing or bolding specific terms throughout the document? Are paragraphs indented? What about space between paragraphs? Do you capitalize captions or punctuate them as sentences? The document should look good on first glance, and formatting consistently is key to making a good impression.
  5. References. Choose one method for references, such as footnotes, endnotes, or in-text references. Format the references the same way every time. For example, don’t use an author’s full name and the abbreviation for page number (i.e., Mark Twain, p. 123) and then later just use the author’s last name without the page abbreviation (i.e., Twain, 144). Likewise, use the same formatting from endnote to endnote in a given document.

I hope you find this advice useful. I could go into more detail about consistency, but this is supposed to be a tutorial to make you feel more at ease about polishing a document. And always, keep in mind the audience for your work. If you are submitting a paper to a professor, refer to the syllabus for the class’s preferred style. If you are editing a newsletter or a blog, just try to be as consistent as possible. If you are handing over your work to an editor, trust that he keeps a style sheet and refers to the appropriate stylebook.

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