5 ideas to improve your writing consistency

One of the most important rules of non-fiction writing is to avoid befuddling your reader with sudden changes of tone or direction. Here are 5 ways to improve your writing consistency

A photo of coffee and a row of macaroons to illustrate a blog post on 5 ways to keep your writing consistentPhotograph via FancyCrave

If someone is reading a piece of non-fiction work, the chances are that they’re looking for information, advice or analysis. They probably want to read quickly and absorb the facts immediately – so whatever they are reading needs to be super clear. I talked in this post about writing clarity – but there’s something else that will help make your writing easy to understand and digest.

Writing consistency. In other words, don’t throw your readers a sudden curveball that will confuse them or interrupt their comprehension or train of thought. A non-fiction piece of writing needs to flow lucidly, with a logical structure, coherent ideas and clear, intelligible writing. An abrupt change of direction – either in thought or style – will bring them up short and make them question what you are trying to say, which might diminish their faith in your judgment or deter them from reading any further. Which would be no good at all.

So, without further ado, here are five writing elements that you need to hold nice and steady…

1. Your message
What is your piece about? What problem are you going to solve or what question are you going to answer? What will your reader learn from this? Signpost your intention at the start and stick to your point throughout. Everything you say should come back to this idea. That doesn’t mean that you can’t add colourful asides or descriptions – but don’t go off on a tangent for long or you’ll lose your reader.

2. Tone of voice
If you’re writing something formal – an essay or a report for work – you need to set an appropriate tone at the outset and make sure you stick with it. It’s too easy to slip into a less formal voice as you progress and start to feel more comfortable, but this only serves to weaken your authority and undermine your message. Keep rereading your work from the start to check for writing consistency and to make sure it all sounds equally weighty and professional.

If you’re composing a social media post for business then obviously it’s fine to be chatty up to a point – but you still need to keep your tone consistent so the boundary between you and the customer remains firm. Don’t be tempted to get too personal; it’s OK to be honest and show some genuine character, but customers need to trust you and consider you reliable, efficient and positive. You might have crazy or flakey moments but no one needs to know that…

3. Subject agreement
A sentence revolves around its subject (a noun, pronoun or noun phrase) and verbs should agree with it. That seems pretty basic, but there are a few traps to watch out for. In the sentence, “The audience was very still”, we use “was” because “the audience” is singular, despite it being composed of many people. Similarly, the word “none” stands for “not one” so, strictly speaking, a singular verb should also be applied: “None of them was able to answer.” However, in the sentence, “One in ten dogs prefer our chunky food”, you need a plural verb because you are referring to lots of dogs (10 per cent of dogs), despite the misleading word “one”. Similarly, “Ten miles is a long way to run” takes the singular verb “is” because ten miles, although strictly a plural, is really referring to a length of ten miles (which would be singular). For the same reason, we say that something measures “less than ten centimetres” rather than “fewer than ten centimetres”, even though this appears to contradict the less/fewer rule.

ALSO! I talked in detail here about hanging participles (aka dangling modifiers). This is where a participle phrase* becomes disconnected from the noun it is supposed to be modifying – it is attached to the wrong subject. Or, to put it another way, it’s where a sentence has two clauses but the first clause is missing a subject and so both clauses appear to relate to the subject of the second clause – with confusing results. For example: “Having lived in London for many years, this painting of Tower Bridge means a lot.” The subject of the first clause should be “I” – “I lived in London for many years” – but because the “I” is missing, the participle “having” is forced to relate to the subject of the second clause, “this painting”. The sentence thus suggests that the painting has lived in London for many years. It should be rewritten: “I lived in London for many years, so this painting of Tower Bridge means a lot.” Other examples include, “Finishing the final chapter of my book, the plane finally landed” or “Gazing out of the window, the skyscrapers looked enormous”. In these sentences,  a plane is reading a book and some skyscrapers are gazing out of a window…

4. Tense
Tenses within a sentence should stay consistent, unless a change of time within the sentence demands otherwise. For instance, “She was reading in her bedroom, but now that Bob is here she is making him a cup of tea.” We need to change from past continuous to present continuous to reflect the temporal shift described. What you don’t need to do, however, is to change tense to reflect your present. Take this example: “He had always moved freely around the pitch before, but the rules of the game require that he stay behind the line.” The rules of the game might still require that now, but in the context of the sentence you are still talking about the past: “… the rules of the game required that he stay behind the line”.

5. Punctuation and formatting
Formatting is the visual stuff – how you lay out your document – and it’s a hugely important part of writing consistency. A long piece needs breaking up with subheadings and these should be consistently signposted (in bold, underlined, in a certain font or whatever). Long quotations should always be laid out in the same way, eg, centred, with spaces before and after. Quote marks could be singles within doubles or doubles within singles – but must always stay consistent.

Picture captions should be in a consistent style (italicised? centred? long and descriptive or short and punchy?), as should other “page furniture” such as credits, arrows, numbers, bullet points, etc.

In terms of punctuation, there is often more than one way of doing something. Commas, colons, semicolons… the way they are used is always up for – often fierce – debate. The important thing is to make your choice and stick to it, to avoid tripping your reader up and spoiling the flow of your piece.

Remember that most readers will scan a document first. The more clearly it is laid out and formatted, and the more professional and inviting it looks, the more likely they are to read it all the way through.

Is there anything I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments!

*A participle is a word formed from a verb that participates in two grammatical functions: as a verb tense or an adjective. They usually end in ‘ing’, ‘ed’, or ‘en’. Used with an auxiliary verb, a participle implies ongoing action in the present or past (‘She was playing with the doll’/’She had played with the doll’). As adjectives they are used in the passive voice or to begin a clause (‘The doll had been played with’/’Playing with the doll, the girl was happy’). They are classed as either present participles (playing) or past participles (played) although these labels are misleading as present participles are not restricted to the expression of present time (She had been playing) and past participles are not restricted to the expression of past time (The doll will be played with later).

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