Updated: Mar 10, 2020
When I was in college, I discovered how much I enjoyed Sudoku. But it wasn’t always that way. When I first picked up a newspaper and guessed my way through rows and columns of numbers one through nine, I came away frustrated with the haphazard strategy. Then my friend Brandy taught me the patterns of Sudoku, because that’s really all it is—patterns of elimination.
Once I realized that I never had to guess, that I could follow a formula for success, I was hooked. With a consistent treatment, I could complete the puzzle most of the time. This logical approach to puzzles and eye for patterns has translated into my writing and editing.
Writing, even as a creative work, is full of patterns and formulas, and good writing is consistent. That’s why we work from style guides—to apply a uniform treatment to the manuscript. Style guides sometimes vary, even contradict each other, but the point is to pick one and stick with it. Here are some common areas I’ve observed where authors struggle with consistency.
Numbers Did you spell out five in the last paragraph, but later write 5? There are lots of rules (and exceptions) when it comes to numbers and their forms.
Lists Did you capitalize the first word of some bullet points, but not others? Do some points end with a period and others don’t? Are you starting each point with the same part of speech? If you’re starting with verbs, do your tenses match each other?
Serial Comma Comma or no comma? Did you use the serial comma two sentences ago, but left it out in this one?
Pronouns for God If you’re writing about God, will you capitalize deity pronouns or not?
Word Choice Did you write gray the first time and grey the next? How about toward vs. towards?
Are you consistent in how you spell and capitalize names of people, places, and other proper nouns?
Character Details Does she have a bob but later toss her pony tail over her shoulder? Or blue eyes in the last chapter, but now they're green? Readers may not notice minute formatting inconsistencies, but they will notice problems with character continuity.
Plot Holes Did your character graduate high school six years ago, but is now thirty-two? Leave on a four hour drive at 2:00 p.m. and arrive at 5:00 p.m.? Plot holes are inconsistencies or contradictions in chronology, premise, or setting.
I love this level of detail, love tracking down the inconsistencies. You don’t have to be good at Sudoku to be a good self-editor. Just be consistent. And then bring in the copy editor!
(My copy editing services are based on the Chicago Manual of Style or the Associated Press Stylebook and include a customized style sheet tailored to your story. To see a sample, click here or check out the services page.)