In many instances in life, we come to expect things to be a certain way; and when something unexpected happens, it throws us off. When a reader encounters an inconsistency, or something unexpected, in a document, it can throw them off too. And, when a reader’s progress is stopped, when they are forced to reread a sentence or check a fact or definition, they may begin to doubt other aspects of the document’s message. Being consistent in word choice, message, units of measure, etc. helps the reader anticipate what they are going to encounter.
Consistency in the document is crucial for accurately conveying your message and also maintaining your reputation and credibility with your audience. If you refer to miles throughout half of the document and kilometers in the other half, your audience is going to be confused – and could very well question your conclusions, especially if the conversions between the two units do not add up.
There are many elements of the document where you need to maintain consistency – whether it be the location of a study, the name of the overseeing body, the units of measure for an experiment, format, etc. In a three page document, it may be easy to keep all the specifics at front of mind and maintain consistency throughout. However, when you are working with a larger document, or when multiple authors are working together, things can get confusing.
One of the best ways to combat inconsistencies in a document is to work with a style sheet (Figure 1). On this style sheet, you pre-determine or note throughout the writing or editing process how to refer to specific elements of the document. This includes names of places and people, what should or should not be hyphened, and definitions of acronyms and abbreviations. Are you spelling out numbers? Make a note. Is “landfill” capitalized when not used in the proper name of the site? Make a note. Is the governing body referred to as the “Board of Directors” or “committee”? Make a note. Are you sending “email” or “e-mail” or “Email”? Make a note.
A document-specific style sheet can help ensure consistency from the beginning of a project, but is also crucial during the editing process. Many of the reports I have encountered do not have a style guide already established, which means one of the first things I do, is print off the style sheet and start making notes. No matter when a style guide is applied to a document it helps ensure consistency and accuracy in the words and message you are conveying to your audience.
Using phrases or words inconsistently in documents make an overall sloppy impression on the reader. Appearing sloppy to your audience is not going to reinforce your credibility – it can, instead, call it into question. When your reader encounters something unexpected, they may be more inclined to scrutinize every aspect of your document, your expertise, and your reputation.