by Emily Nemchick
When you check your own manuscript for errors, you are probably looking for misspelled words, dodgy grammar, and the inevitable typos. Those are all things you need to correct—but you should also be aware of pesky consistency errors that are commonplace in poorly edited manuscripts.
Why Does Consistency Matter?
Sure, your average reader might not mind if you make a few slip-ups, but inconsistency, whether in names, spelling, punctuation, or formatting, can be bothersome and distracting. They also make your book look amateurish and sloppy. If you want to have a professional final product, keeping a checklist of common inconsistencies is a great way to ensure you don’t miss any small but significant style issues.
What to Look For
Inconsistency can mean a lot of things. Inconsistency in style, inconsistency in plot or characterization, or subtle but significant inconsistencies in spelling and punctuation. Plot inconsistencies need to be addressed on a case-by-case basis, but style inconsistencies are much easier to weed out. Once you know what to look for, it’s easy to go through and check you haven’t made any of the most common consistency errors. Below I’ve listed some of the ones I see in almost every manuscript I edit.
Toward vs. Towards
U.S. authors generally favor “toward” whereas in the UK “towards” is more common. However, I see a lot of inconsistency in usage. It’s one of those times when there is no wrong answer but being consistent is important. While you’re at it, you should also check “forward/forwards” and “backward/backwards” for consistency. A quick search for “ward” and “wards” usually shows you if you are using these two inconsistently.
Alright vs. All Right
While technically “all right” is correct, “alright” is an acceptable alternative, and I see both versions frequently. In fact, I often see both versions within the same manuscript. Personally, I don’t think it really matters which version you use, but it is important to stick to just one. A quick Find and Replace makes it easy to catch and correct this error.
OK or okay?
I’ve seen “ok” (incorrect), “OK,” and “okay” all making friends together in a single manuscript. It doesn’t really matter if you use “OK” or “okay” but make sure you stick to one or the other. (Top tip: if you realize you’ve been using both, it is easier to Find and Replace “okay” and solve the issue in seconds. Don’t Find and Replace “OK” or you’ll end up with word salad. Think “book” to “bookay.”)
The Oxford Comma
Some people like the Oxford comma, others eschew it. Both schools of thought are fine, but you need to pick one and stick with it. I see more authors who use it than who don’t bother with it, but it really comes down to personal choice. The best way to achieve consistency here is to decide which way you want to swing before you start typing. It’s a pesky little thing to edit manually.
Names with Multiple Spellings
If your characters have unusual names, or even just names that have more than one possible spelling, pay extra attention when checking your work that you spell their name the same every single time. I see this a lot in fantasy books with Naehiramels and Kreossaleks, or other unusual names. It also crops up with Saras and Sarahs, Stevens and Stephens—I’ve even seen Chance and Chase interchanged. Keeping a list of your character names can be a useful reference if you are prone to making this kind of error. If a character is called Alyce or Alise, I often do a quick search for “Alice” to check the author hasn’t accidentally mislabeled her character. Trust me, it pays off.
A lot of people get confused about the difference between an em dash (—), an en dash (–), and a hyphen (-). I’m here to tell you not to sweat it too much. Just be consistent. If you’re separating parts of your sentence—like this—you can use whatever you please. Sure, there are rules, but being consistent is more important than conforming to a style guide. Pick one and stick to it. I recommend the trusty em dash—this one—for U.S. authors. In the UK, the preferred format is en dashes with spaces – like this – but do whatever floats your boat. Just don’t mix and match.
Speech Mark and Apostrophe Shapes
This is a particularly strange and nitpicky one. I’ve noticed that in many manuscripts, authors have a mix of different shapes for speech marks and apostrophes: “ or ” and ‘ or ‘. I don’t really know why there are two different shapes, If I’m being honest, but I do know that it looks messy to have differently shaped speech marks littering your manuscript. A good old Find and Replace does the trick here. It’s a handy one to add to your checklist.
Two or 2?
A lot of authors get confused about how to format numbers. This includes ages, dates, street names, house numbers, money, and just the number of items you are referring to. Admittedly it is a big headache, and the rules are tiresome and complex. If in doubt, screw the rules and just be consistent. Don’t use 2 and two interchangeably. Don’t oscillate between 5th Avenue and Fifth Avenue. Make a choice between five dollars and $5. The most basic rule is that you spell out numbers up to nine and write 10 and up numerically. It gets more complicated than this, of course, but if in doubt, just pick a format and stick to it. Even if it’s not technically correct according to some style guide, consistency always looks better than a muddle.
If you do a lot of rewriting, and I can’t stress this enough, check your chapter headings! I can’t begin to tell you the number of times I’ve seen authors skip a number or have two Chapter 22s in a row. Be sure to pick a format and stick with it. Usually just searching “chapter” makes it easy to see if you have misnumbered your chapters or have “Chapter 2” followed by “Chapter Three.”
I’m sure there are many more, but these are some of the ones I see the most. Are there any consistency issues you are guilty of in your writing? What goes on your style checklist? Let me know!
Emily Nemchick is a freelance copy editor. She enjoys reading practically anything, preferably curled up somewhere cozy with a cup of tea. She can generally be found in front of her laptop, probably eating a cookie.