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.

Five Tips for Writing an Academic Paper

A few weeks ago, I corresponded with a friend who is preparing to write her master’s thesis. To encourage her in the writing process, I gave her a few tips that always help me when writing an academic paper:

  1. Outline first. As a major in both writing and English in college, I wrote nearly two or three papers a week in some semesters. The topics ranged from personal essay and grant writing to literary criticism and composition theory. To keep my thoughts straight, I often outlined ideas while listening to professors in class. Later, in graduate school, I drafted outlines on the computer and mulled them over for several days before even starting a first draft. I can’t tell you the number of times I shifted focus during this outlining process. It may seem like one of those annoying things (even like busy work) that some professors force you to do before composing a paper, but it’s a great first step in the writing process.
  2. Work on several drafts. Like outlining, this can seem like a waste of time, especially to those who procrastinate. However, it’s helpful to leave a paper and return to it a day or two (or even a week) later. If you are writing a good paper that’s presenting a new idea (which is the ideal), it’s going to take you awhile to get your thoughts straight, not to mention your prose coherent.
  3. Form a writing group with one or more people in your program to collaborate with during the writing process. Most of us hate group work. It’s sometimes a torture device when you’re paired with people who you don’t connect with or when your schedule is overpacked as is. However, working with a partner or a group of people during your writing process can prove to be a big benefit. Your peers can provide you with constructive feedback, as they are saturated with the same content you studied in your program, helping you avoid writer’s block and turning over the same segmented ideas again and again in front of your computer screen.
  4. Start paragraphs with topic sentences. I credit a history professor in an elective course in college with teaching me the value of topic sentences. While writing is nuanced, delivering ideas and supporting evidence is the main aspect of writing an academic paper, so using topic sentences helps you get to the point fast. Like the simple five-paragraph essay where you state your thesis in the first paragraph, follow with three paragraphs supporting it, and finish with a conclusion, a topic sentence can be a launching point to make sure each paragraph in your paper has value. Consider utilizing sections as well for better coherence.
  5. Read aloud to yourself or a willing friend/family member. While I didn’t mention this tip to my friend, I am a strong advocate for reading a paper to him. My loyal and patient husband sat in our office on many occasions while I read papers for my master’s program aloud (it was a master’s in public administration, so think about the topics he had to sit through!). During each session, I corrected myself and rewrote. This is something you could do with your writing group or with someone who loves you unconditionally!

I hope these few tips can help you write an exceptional academic paper. If you need further help, I can assist you in polishing a draft, formatting references, and copyediting — whatever you need! Good luck with your paper!