Sorry, Emerson, being consistent is not the hobgoblin of small minds.
Of course, if I have it right, Emerson said, “Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.”
Being consistent is one of my Seven C’s for good writing that I have lectured about for decades. Actually, I developed the Seven C’s for my editing class, and for years I tried to teach students that they need to have a reason to change a writer’s copy. Editors should not change copy out of some whim or because they like their words better than the author’s.
My first class in editing I always wrote in big letters on the board “Editor is God.” (My daughter made me a large and beautiful stained class window with those words in it that hangs here in my study.) I wanted to impress upon the students that they were the final arbiter, the final judge of how copy would appear forever. Writers are a dime a dozen, I would tell them; editors are rare. Writers win prizes; editors remain anonymous. Editors create writers, make them look good, save their butts regularly — and get none of the credit and lots of abuse.
Nevertheless, editors should be able to explain WHY they changed the copy. And that’s why I gave my students seven reasons to change it: To make copy correct, consistent, clear, concise, coherent, complete and creative.
I probably should start in the beginning, but I want to start with the need to be consistent. You need to be consistent for one simple reason: If you aren’t, you look incorrect. You need to be consistent as a writer (and if you aren’t, an editor must see to it that you are) on two levels.
The first level might be called technical. You must be consistent in:
*spelling. How obvious you say. But I regularly find editorial offices in which there are three or four different dictionaries lying around. That’s not a good idea. You should choose one, and that’s for the simple reason that dictionaries sometimes differ in their spelling of words — at least in the preferred spelling of words. And for the sake of being consistent, why not have your staff agree to choose the first spelling of a word. Webster’s III International is a solid final appeal, but a excellent dictionary for most to have is Webster’s New World College Dictionary, 4th edition, the official dictionary of the Associated Press. And by the way, most of us don’t even know what dictionary is in the spell-check in our computers, and I think it’s true that spell-checks allow more than one spelling. What good is that?
*grammar. Again, how obvious. It is surprising again how few editorial offices have standard books they can refer to for grammatical questions. An excellent, most practical choice is “Working With Words,” by Brooks, Pinson and Gaddy Wilson, published by Bedford/St. Martin’s.
*style. You must be consistent in what you capitalize, what you abbreviate, in how you use numbers, in how you punctuate, and in whole lot of other matters. To do this, you need a stylebook. Most newspapers, magazines and newsletters use the Associated Press style; some use the Chicago Manual of Style; others have their own stylebooks. I’m regularly told by staffs that they use several stylebooks. What nonsense! Having more than one stylebook defeats the purpose of having one. Choose one! That’s difficult enough. And make sure that everyone has a copy within arm’s length.
Of course, your publication may have its own particular set of rules in addition to the stylebook that you adopt. Additional rules, yes, but it’s probably foolish for you to attempt to compile an entire stylebook of your own. Leave that to large publications such as “The New York Times” and “The New Yorker.”
If you are a writer, you need to know the stylebook of the publication for which you are writing. Some formal journals do have some particular rules that they wish to have followed.
The second level of consistency concerns our writing style in a nontechnical sense. Now, please, I don’t want to throttle your creativity. You can do wonderfully bright writing with similes, metaphors, analogies, examples, change of pace, establishing a mood, using voice, etc., and still be consistent in some basic things.
For example, you must in the beginning decide on your approach to a piece. Will you write in the first person “I” or the second person “you” or in the third person? Don’t start writing in the third person, and then half way through or toward the end suddenly insert yourself or suddenly address the reader directly. There’s nothing wrong with a first-person piece — if you can’t easily stay out of the piece. I would avoid, however, the use of “we” because readers don’t know who that “we” is. Wasn’t it Mark Twain who said, “Save ‘we’ for God, kings and people with tape worms”?
By the way, I like leads, even news leads, that have the word “you” in it. Using “you” forces the writer to get to the WIIFM
(What’s In It For Me?) quickly. Once you begin with “you,” you can stay with it. You’d be surprised how much easier it is to avoid the passive voice of the verb when you do that.
You should be consistent in the use of your verbs. Especially watch the tense of the verb, and, of course, keep those verbs in the active voice. Make your verbs do things to things. Make them transitive; avoid the verb “to be” as much as you can.
Try to establish a tone, a mood, a flavor, and then try to maintain it. Often a piece starts out with a flash and then just peters out. Some happy stories have a somber mood, and worse, some sad stores seem to have a snappy, happy pace and tone. If you are friendly and personal in your opening, stay that way.
So — if you’re a writer, try to be consistent. If you’re an editor, your job is to make the copy consistent both inside the piece itself and with the publication in which it will appear. And more than that, if you are an editor of a publication, you probably want the whole publication to have a consistent look and feel and tone about it. I rather like the word “attitude.” Establish an attitude, and for the most part, stick with it.