When your writing is inconsistent, you look like you don’t have it “together.” When your writing is consistent, it appears that you know what you are doing — even if you don’t. Thus, it is better to have consistency in your writing.
Consistency is adhering to the same “rules” throughout a piece of writing. It includes the following elements: format, terminology, spelling, punctuation, verb tense, point of view, audience, and audience level.
Format: Obviously you want your margins to be the same throughout a memo, a letter, a white paper, a thesis, or an entire book. No matter what the length, the format should be consistent. Paragraph indents should all be the same. Tabs should be set the same. The same type of thing should be treated the same way throughout. If you use bullet lists, make the bullets the same. That doesn’t mean you can never use numbered lists in the same price of writing; sometimes numbered lists are needed. Spacing between sentences and paragraphs should be the same throughout. Headings should be consistently in the same font and size and style if they are the same type of heading. Notes or footnotes should receive similar treatment throughout. If you are using italics or “quotes” or bold for certain types of things in your writing, use them consistently. Don’t use quotes one time and the next time use bold for the same thing. Following one specific style guide, no matter which one it might be, will help. A consistent format is pleasing to the eye and makes whatever you write easier to read. It gives the reader confidence that you know what you are doing.
Terminology: If you are going to call a spade a spade, don’t call it something else the next time you refer to it! You get my point. Even something minor can throw the reader off and make the reader wonder if you are talking about the same thing or not. The First National Bank of Boston shouldn’t be referred to as The First Bank of Boston or the First National Bank of Boston the next time you use it. Don’t use someone’s first name alone and then their last name alone; the reader may not connect them and realize it’s the same person. Acronyms should be spelled out the first time you use them with their abbreviation included; then you can use just the abbreviated form. Inconsistent terminology can quickly confuse a reader.
Spelling: Here is a big one. Obviously you want to spell everything correctly. And you want to use either American or British spelling throughout, not a combination. However, some words, particularly hyphenated and compound words, can cause a problem. Is it email? e-mail? e mail? Well, look it up, and use the same reference book for the whole piece of writing. If there are conflicting spellings, or more than one, just pick one and use it throughout. It doesn’t matter what you choose; if you are consistent you give the impression that you know what you are doing and you care about your writing. With words like email that are fairly new to the language, here is what happens: these words generally start as two words. Then they are put together with a hyphen. When they become very common, they often become one word. Here is an exception to what I just said: You would say, “She is a three-year-old girl.” However, you would say, ” The girl is a three year old.” Such compound adjectives are hyphenated when they precede the noun they modify, but they are not if they come after the noun. So it might look inconsistent, but it isn’t.
Punctuation: I put this here for one reason only. Most punctuation goes by pretty standard rules. However, the Oxford comma is optional. That doesn’t mean you can use it some times and not use it other times in the same piece of writing. Pick one. Use it or don’t. Just be consistent.
Verb Tense: Use the same tense throughout your writing if you are talking about things happening at the same time. Of course, you can switch to past tense if something happened before the rest of your writing, but don’t needlessly switch from past to present.
Point of View: If you are writing in a first person point of view (I), don’t suddenly switch and begin saying you instead. And don’t begin by using you and then suddenly throw in a random one instead.
Audience: If you are writing to an audience that isn’t familiar with legal terms, don’t begin in layman’s language and then start throwing in legal terms. Keep the audience consistent.
Audience level: You might be writing to a group of physics professors. You might be writing to 8th graders. Keep that in mind. Don’t mix simple concepts and very complex ones, or throw in words you know your audience won’t understand. If you are writing to a lower-level audience, you might want to keep your sentences shorter and simpler too.
Writing with consistency will make your readers much happier. If you are using an editor, consistency is one of the things your editor will be looking for.
Trust is built with consistency.