Tips for Attaining Editorial Consistency

By Mark Nichol

How much time and effort should a writer put into consistency? And how much energy should an editor devote to it? The answer, as with many editorial issues, is not that simple, but it is easy to elucidate.

A book or a book-length publication, such as an extensive report, must for the sake of a reader’s respect for the authority of the argument and/or the regard of the care taken by the writer, strive for flawless consistency in all regards. But note that “flawless consistency” does not necessary mean “precisely the same every time.” If not, what does it mean?

When an entity, whether a person or a company or organization, is mentioned repeatedly in one document, of course the name should be spelled correctly each time. But there are acceptable variations to the treatment of the name. When a biography of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, for example, names him for the first time, the reader should see those four components of his name.

But his last name alone is sufficient thereafter — with exceptions. An emphatic reference to his strength of character may require a stylistic flourish: “But Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wasn’t about to let her get away with that.” A quotation in the book may refer to him before he was knighted, or the person quoted may simply have omitted the honorific. Complicating matters, it appears that later in life, the creator of Sherlock Holmes preferred to use “Conan Doyle,” though without a hyphen, as his surname, so the writer must decide whether to use the single surname or the double version — and must do so consistently.

By the same token, a company or organization name is often spelled out only the first time it is used, and is then referred to by a short form (for example, Dow, rather than Dow Chemical Company) or an acronym or initialism (NASA, rather than the National Aeronautic and Space Administration, for instance). As with a personal name, there’s no reason to revert to the full name outside a quotation or some other anomalous usage.

And what if a book is a collection of essays by various writers? The editor of the anthology is responsible for establishing a style that remains consistent throughout — unless, of course, one or more contributions are previously published in a differing form of the language, such as an essay by a British English writer among American English authors. The editor may edit the essay to conform to American English style, but it’s easier to leave it as is and acknowledge the discrepancy in the introduction or in a note.

As for treatment of names, an anthology’s editor might choose to resume full forms at the beginning of each chapter to reacquaint the reader, then resort to short forms or abbreviations after each chapter’s first reference.

In the case of words with more than one correct spelling, such as adviser/advisor, the copy editor simply notes the preferred spelling on a style sheet while working on a manuscript and performs a word search for any instances of the nonpreferred spelling and corrects them. Alternatively, the copy editor can simply note that the manuscript, as edited, conforms to the primary spelling in the dictionary. (Many publications use this policy as a simplifying default setting to prevent ambiguity about which spelling to employ.)

Periodicals, as well as book publishers and many other companies and organizations that publish, generally have a style guide, which prescribes treatment of pertinent names and terminology; for example, an industry-focused magazine about architecture may routinely refer to the American Institute of Architects by its initials alone because the publication’s readers do not require a complete identification, and a journal about US history will dictate that all references to indigenous bovines specify bison, rather than the inaccurate popular variant buffalo.

A carefully compiled style guide will document these policies, and a diligent copy editor will consistently honor them. (Writers are often unaware of the rules governing editorial inconsistency, or are not careful about applying them, and in the worst cases do not think doing so is their responsibility, or even necessary.)

Web sites with user-generated content, as opposed to those that, like print publications, have an editorial staff, cannot expect all contributors to conform to style and will thus be flexible about consistency, though any text generated by the site staff should adhere to the prescribed style.

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4 Responses to “Tips for Attaining Editorial Consistency”

  • Patricia

    I came across this sentence below and I found that the word ‘necessary’ is in its incorrect form when it modified the word ‘mean.’

    But note that “flawless consistency” does not necessary mean “precisely the same every time.”

    Please correct if my suggestion is wrong, that the word ‘necessary’ should be in the form of an adverb as in ‘necessarily.’ Thus, creating the adverbial phrase, ‘does not necessarily mean.’

  • cmdweb @ freewritingadvice.com

    As a former technical writer, the use of a style guide is the main method that I would always advocate. When bringing together contributions from many writers, whether for a user manual or a magazine publication, the only reliable method of ensuring the level of consistency you’re talking about is through the application of style guidelines to all authors and a dependeable editorial team with a shared view of the required outcome. Even for freelance writers who work alone, I also advocate the use of a style guide for individual customers, allowing the freelancer to record elements of style, consistency and terminology particular to each customer.
    I wrote an article on this which has been linked and quoted in a few places, entitled ‘What is a Style Guide and Why Would I Need One?’.

  • Bonnie Simpson

    I love the idea of using a semicolon to show the next sentence flows with the previous sentence in thought; however, rules are rigid for advising use of a comma after placing the semicolon.

    Use of the semicolon is correct as long as the sentence after it can stand alone as a complete thought. I get that. There are times I will not use a comma, but I will employ the semicolon as an em dash to indicate a quick thought in the middle of the sentence.

    Have there been instances where you (or maybe another writer) bent punctuation rules to convey a message?

  • Lauren @ Pure Text

    Patricia (first commenter), nice catch. It seems your comment has gone unnoticed, though. 🙁 Ha!

    Anyway, as an editor, I enjoyed this post. Maintaining and imposing consistency is one of the most mundane and time-consuming parts of my job, but thankfully, I have tools to help me with it, not to mention, consistency only makes sense.

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