Consistency: How Much Is Too Much?

Editor’s Corner

Matt Hampel, consistencyIn writing and editing, consistency is assumed to be a good thing. A publication looks unprofessional when a name is spelled more than one way, a number is only sometimes spelled out, or a subheading doesn’t reflect its level of importance. Good editors spend a great deal of their time keeping track of such details in order to impose consistency.

But at some level, consistency should cease to be a goal. First, there is a limit to the amount of time a writer or editor can spend on minutiae; and second, not every inconsistency is a hindrance to the reader. In fact, in many instances, variety provides a better reading experience than the monotony of consistency. And sometimes, it’s better to break style now and then within a single sentence or paragraph in order to achieve “local consistency.”

Here are some instances of where doing something the same way every time might be counterproductive or even incorrect:

  •  Comma before or, and, or because
  •  Tenses of verbs introducing quotations (Aristotle says, Ringo wrote)
  •  Punctuation of different kinds of vertical lists
  •  Commas versus colons introducing quoted matter
  •  Capped or lowercased letter beginning a quotation

Combing back through a document to make something consistent can be time-consuming, so before you do, take a moment to consider whether it is worth the effort. Will the reader be inconvenienced or annoyed by the perceived inconsistency? Will you be able to find every instance, or is it difficult to search for? Is it the kind of inconsistency that can easily be justified as variety?

You might just save yourself some time and trouble.

Carol-SmallCarol Fisher Saller is editor of the CMOS Online Q&A and author of The Subversive Copy Editor: Advice from Chicago (or, How to Negotiate Good Relationships with Your Writers, Your Colleagues, and Yourself). You can find her on Facebook and Twitter (@SubvCopyEd).

Photo: Consistency, by Matt Hampel

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6 thoughts on “Consistency: How Much Is Too Much?

  1. I really appreciate this post, and am really pleased to have discovered this blog! I’ve been copy editing for decades and just recently was informed that the comma you’ve referenced here – in lists – is called an Oxford comma and is somewhat controversial. I have always been a stickler about it, but I think it’s because my writing and editing skills come out of graduate studies in history – thus, Chicago style, which does embrace the so-called “Oxford” comma. In any case, this is a great reminder that when I am editing fiction I don’t need to treat it like a dissertation. I do get totally bogged down in consistency, too – the verb tense issue is definitely an example that sometimes drives me to re-read excessively.

  2. Hi Carol, thanks for your great post.

    It’s so easy to forget why you’re doing something, especially when under pressure with deadlines. I’ll definitely step back and think about the reader rather than dogmatically making everything consistent in the future.

    I’m very glad you’re writing posts again. I really enjoyed your old blog!

  3. How is “punctuation of different kinds of vertical lists” an example of “doing something the same way every time”? If it’s a different kind of vertical list, then it is, by definition, not the same.

  4. Pingback: When is editorial consistency overrated? - Martin Kelley / Quaker Ranter

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