Once upon a time, there was a self-publishing podcast from which sprung the Facebook group The Smarter Artist. To create a platform where indie-writers could meet like-minded editors, a bunch of editors within this group of writers created the spin-off group The Smarter Artist Editors. Long story short, a dedicated few started a weekly thread sharing editing tips with the community, and we’re now ready to share these tips with the world.
Today, I’m sharing a tip from Laura Martone. Laura is a freelance editor, novelist, and former travel guide author.
My all-time favorite holiday is less than a week away, and given that it goes by several different names – including All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints’ Eve, and Halloween – I’ve found myself musing about the concept of consistency in editing.
Perhaps you’re already familiar with the five C’s of good copyediting: clear, correct, concise, comprehensive, and consistent. If so, then you likely realize these are five of the most important qualities that any reliable editor strives for when editing and proofreading your manuscript.
And as with many aspects of the writing craft, the more you try to improve these qualities in your own work, the easier it will be for your editor to catch bigger story issues and ultimately help your book rise above the rest. Of course, even if you opt not to hire a professional editor, embracing the five C’s of good copyediting will certainly improve your own self-editing skills.
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, editing “rules” can seem overwhelming at times. But no matter which guidelines you choose to follow, aiming for consistency is key – which is why I’ve decided to focus on this particular issue in today’s post.
Consistency is critical at every level of the writing craft. If you’re writing a series, for instance, you should strive for a consistent structure for each installment – or at least fulfill the expectations of your readers. So, if you satisfactorily complete the main story arc of the first book, you might want to avoid having a potentially infuriating cliffhanger at the close of the second one. Don’t get me wrong: cliffhangers can offer you a terrific way to lure devoted readers to your next book. You should just aim for consistency when using them. In other words, give your readers what they’ve come to expect.
Likewise, you should aim for consistency in tone and voice – if not throughout your entire story, then at least for each POV character and as your chosen genre dictates. Most readers might not appreciate it, for example, if your violent crime thriller abruptly becomes a silly space opera at the halfway point.
Verb tense can also benefit from a consistent eye. If, for instance, you decide to tell your story in the past tense but put internal thoughts and epistolary segments (like letters, text messages, and journal entries) in present tense, then make sure you stick with that structure – if only to avoid confusing or distracting your readers.
Inconsistencies with setting descriptions, world-building details, and backstory facts (like important dates) can also perplex and unsettle your readers, so do your best to avoid them. Try, too, to steer clear of incongruous genre tropes (unless you’re purposely aiming for a mash-up) or logistical issues (such as action sequences or character placements that make no sense). In addition, you should be consistent with characterization, ensuring continuity of personality traits, dialects, and physical features (such as eye and hair color).
Beyond big-picture story and genre elements, consistency is also helpful on a micro level. When the spelling of a character name fluctuates or chapter headings differ in appearance, your book will seem woefully unprofessional – especially to readers that notice such mistakes. So, strive for consistency with the little things, such as utilizing exact quotations, capitalizing names, italicizing ships, and hyphenating compounds when used as adjectives (such as “eighth-grade class”). And be sure to stick to your own rules regarding punctuation (such as whether to use serial commas), numbers (whether to spell them out or not), or spelling style (choosing, for example, between British or American).
The English language complicates the situation by having an assortment of alternatives in spelling, hyphenation, capitalization, and punctuation. But, again, the key is often consistency. For example, you should use only one abbreviation for a given term. And if there’s more than one way to spell a word – such as “top-notch” versus “topnotch” or “ambiance” versus “ambience” – pick one and maintain that usage throughout your book.
As my fellow editor Serena Clarke suggested in early June, creating a personalized style guide can aid you in keeping track of the rules and elements in your own work. At the very least, doing so will help you minimize errors and inconsistencies.
But just to throw in a monkey wrench… while consistency is important, it isn’t always necessary. Exceptions will depend on syntax, context, your intentions (such as the desire to emphasize certain words or meanings via punctuation or italics), and even your audience’s expectations. Sometimes, you might use a comma before “too” or after an opening phrase like “In 1976” – and sometimes, you might not. It could depend on the emphasis. Likewise, you might opt for semicolons (not commas) in a complex list. And while you’d usually insert a comma between independent clauses, you might not do so in the case of shorter clauses, such as in the example “She walked and she walked, until she couldn’t walk anymore.”
If all this consistency business seems overwhelming, then consider this useful tip: since perfection is unattainable, do your best to strive for local (or regional) consistency. In other words, make sure that proximate stylistic choices conform (that is, those in the same paragraph or on the same page). Unless inconsistencies (such as spellings) are near each other in the text, most readers won’t notice or care about such tiny mistakes.
I hope you’ve found this post helpful, but if I’ve forgotten any important guidelines regarding consistency, please leave a comment below – and feel free to share any inconsistencies that have most bugged you as a reader or writer. In the meantime, I hope y’all have a Happy Halloween!