Some things about writing better are hard, but others are quite simple—like being consistent.
There are many ways to help you write clearly. Some are harder than others. But here’s one that is super simple: be consistent.
Be consistent in things like how you spell and capitalize words, how you order lists, how you group sentences together and organize your paragraphs.
Why does consistency matter?
You may wonder what’s the big deal with being consistent.
What does it matter if you don’t alphabetize a list? Or whether you switch between email and e-mail or use both Project and project in a document?
Actually, readers notice these things. And they will spend time wondering if Program means something different from program,1 get distracted from your story, and even start questioning your credibility.
Remember this image from my post about how knowing the big picture helps you write clearly?
Being consistent helps keep the reader on the path that you set out for them. It keeps them from wandering off into the woods or falling off the edge of a cliff.
Tips to be consistent
Here are some things you can look at, especially when you’re editing.
1. Spell and use words consistently
The most basics of basics: use consistent spellings. For example, you may decide to use American English or British English (with -ise/-isation spellings or with -ize/-ization spellings. Yes, both conventions are possible in British English).
Or if you decide to put a period with Ms. or Mrs., then do so always. And in that case, use a period with Mr. and Dr. too (so don’t use Mrs with Mr. and Dr.).
Also, use the same words to refer to the same thing. For example:
Mixed up (avoid)
The program consists of online courses incorporating two stand-alone programs. Participants must complete all courses to be eligible for the second program.
The program consists of two stand-alone courses. Participants must complete all modules in the first course to be eligible for the second course.
In the first example, it’s confusing what program and course refer to. It’s as if program is used to point to two different things.
But when you only use program to mean the overall training experience and course to mean two discrete tracks in the program, things become clearer. And then we can refer to the pieces that make up one course as modules.
So, I repeat: use the same words to refer to the same thing.
TIP: You can put all these points in your stylesheet—so everyone collaborating on the document knows what conventions to follow…and you remember your decisions too.
2. Alphabetize lists
If you have lists, especially lists of countries or organizations or people, alphabetize them!
If you don’t, readers may read way too much into the order. They might think, “Why is this country/organization/person at the bottom of this list? Is it somehow less important than the others?”
If you are listing items in some other order, then simply state it: “listed in the order of program size/year of participation/number of participants/funding,” etc.
3. Group similar ideas and avoid flip-flopping
Group similar ideas together, whether they are paragraphs or sentences or even words. This will help you avoid going back and forth between two opposing ideas.
When you go back and forth (I call it “flip-flopping”), it makes it harder for the reader to keep up.
Think of it like a hairpin turn in a road. Every time you turn that U-shaped corner, the reader (passenger) has to hang on tight to stay in their seat. It’s more work for them.
Here’s an example paragraph:
Stating something and then using a transition word to present the opposite idea is perfectly fine, but you just don’t want to do it too often.
4. Tell readers what to expect and do what you said you’d do
If you state that you are going to discuss three points, make sure you discuss three points, not two, not four.
Make sure that each point is distinct too (the boundaries of each point has to be clean). You can do this for example by
- Giving each point its own paragraph
- Using a bulleted list (don’t be afraid of using lists)
- Saying it in words (“First,” “Second,” “Third”) — although you might want to use these sparingly and avoid them if you have more than three or so points
- Using subheadings, if each point is more than one paragraph long: state your point as the subheading and then explain below
And if you say
We will discuss A, B, and C.
✓ A → B → C
in that order, not
✖ A → C → B
Being consistent is so simple that there’s no excuse not to do it! What other ways can you be consistent?
This is an elaboration from part of the 1-hour virtual workshop for UNITAR Hiroshima Office staff that I gave in November 2020.