Keeping it consistent

Many people believe that English is full of rules that must not be broken. They are slaves to finding the “correct” version.

Whilst many words do have “correct” versions, there are many examples of words that need choices to be made and then applied consistently. Take, for example, the word “banister”, a pretty ordinary noun and one that you wouldn’t think twice about. Right?

Wrong!

There’s nothing wrong with “banister” but, crucially, there’s nothing wrong with “bannister” either. So, which do you use? Either is absolutely fine but there is a caveat.

Your character climbs the stairs in chapter one holding on the banister. In chapter twenty-two, they cannot then climb the stairs gripping on to the bannister!

Spellings are just one example of consistency that needs to be applied to your text. There are also the other technical points, like capitalisation, word endings (like the capitalisation or capitalization!) and hyphenation that all need to be kept consistent. And, because these things are all correct they won’t be picked up by your usual spelling checker.

Likewise, punctuation should be kept consistent. There’s the constant row of the serial comma. Should it be used or not? I, as you notice from my writing here, tend not to use serial, sometimes called Oxford, commas but, if you do use them, it’s important that they are used consistently.

Other punctuation that needs to be applied consistently include quotation marks (double, single, curly or straight), colons, commas or semicolons in lists, dashes (en or em rules) and closed-up or spaced ellipses. Again, it’s unlikely that your basic computer spellcheck function will highlight these inconsistencies.

Whilst these are all minor when compared to some of the other inconsistencies that I have seen when proofreading and copyediting text. Incidentally, that sentence contains two choices that I maintain consistency on: whilst not while and copyediting not copy-editing.

A reader may not even notice a spelling change so far apart, they might not understand the intricacies of serial commas or em dashes but they will notice a plot inconsistency.

I have lost count of the number of manuscripts I have read when a character’s name has changed halfway through the story. Or perhaps, the characters hair colour changes between chapter two and chapter sixteen and hair dye wasn’t involved! The worst has to be the accidental change of gender!

Along with characters, settings need careful consideration when thinking about consistency. If you’ve already said that the room only has one door, it can’t, when you need a get out, have another door magically appear just to let your characters escape. (Okay, fantasy writers, I hear you – magic and your own world’s rules also need to be applied consistently.)

How do you do it? How do you keep your writing consistent?

Well, my advice would be to download my free style sheet, available on the resources for writers page!

But why?

It’s the easiest way to keep track of all of your stylistic decisions and ensure that you apply them throughout your manuscript. Or, if you’re writing a series of books, all of your manuscripts.

Keep track of:

  • Spelling preferences, including space for a complete A–Z spelling list
  • Abbreviations
  • Italic and roman text
  • One word, hyphenated and two-word variants
  • Words that should be capitalised and words that should be in lowercase
  • Quotation marks, ellipses and other punctuation
  • Chapters, paragraphs and other formatting rules
  • Times, dates and numbers
  • Possessives (Is it Nicholas’ or Nicholas’s?)
  • Story details, including the crucial point of view (more on that in a forthcoming blog post!)
  • Characters details
  • Settings
  • Key events in the plot

It’s important to remember that this is a working document and, if things change in your story, the style sheet needs updating to reflect this.

When I’m copyediting your piece, I’ll work with your style sheet, if you have one, or build one for you as I go. It’s really helpful if you have one already or have an idea about the rules that you are applying to the document.

Go ahead, download it now and keep your writing consistent. And, if you want any further advice or want to see an example of how I use a style sheet, please get in touch. I’m always happy to answer editing questions!

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Published by Nick Taylor | Editor & Proofreader

Fiction editor and proofreader.

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