Be consistent

Consistency matters. It makes your documents and webpages easier for people to read and find their way around. It also makes them look professional.

You achieve consistency by making and applying rules to several aspects of your writing. Your organisation may have its own set of rules (these are often defined in a style guide). Use, and add to, these rules if they exist, otherwise develop your own rules and apply them consistently.

Apply rules to the following aspects of your writing, while you’re writing, when you’re editing and when you’re proofreading your work.

Style

Your style rules explain when and how you will:

  • use capitals
  • use punctuation
  • present lists
  • write numbers
  • write measurements
  • write dates and times
  • use symbols
  • present headings and subheadings
  • use font (typeface, size and colour)
  • use bold, italics and underlining
  • use contractions (such as can’t or he’ll)
  • present references.

Language

Make a list of the terms you use in your writing as you go along. This will help you write those terms consistently. Include these things:

  • spellings of uncommon words
  • spellings of words and phrases that can be spelt differently
  • words that use diacritical marks (such as macrons and accents)
  • abbreviations, acronyms and initialisms
  • Latin abbreviations
  • legal terms
  • computer terms
  • technical terms.

Structure

When you structure your documents consistently it helps your readers understand how material is organised, which makes it quicker and easier for them to find the information they need. For example, in documents with multiple sections, present information in the same order.

Layout

Your layout rules explain how you will use:

  • margins
  • headers and footers
  • column widths
  • spacing (paragraphs and lines)
  • page numbers.

Tables, charts and figures

If you’re using tables, charts or figures in your documents, develop rules about how you will:

  • number them
  • position them
  • format them
  • reference them (and where you will place the reference)
  • caption them (and where you will place the caption).

When you work with tables, charts and figures, you may decide to adapt some of the style or language you’ve made for your text. For example, because you have less space, you may use more abbreviations or not write out numbers in full. Remember to make a note of these decisions so that you apply them consistently to each of your tables, charts and figures.

Content, tone and messages

Before you finalise your document or webpage, check that your writing’s content, tone and messages are consistent.

When several writers contribute to a document it’s likely to contain some inconsistent tone and messages. When a document has been updated multiple times, it’s easy for inconsistent content to creep in. For example, text changed in one section may not be updated in other sections or in tables, charts, figures, lists and text boxes.

Contact me to help you apply consistency to your writing, or develop a style guide for your organisation.