Be consistent (and some instructions on using find and replace in Word)

Time to get back to some writing-related posts.  (That is theoretically the reason I write this blog.)  But I’m going to ease my way into it with a post that is more generally applicable to anyone who writes anything anywhere that will be edited or reviewed by someone else.

How’s that for a broad audience? 

First, a post by someone smarter than me: Dr. Doyle on Pick One and Stick to It

Dr. Doyle discusses the various forms of OK/okay/O.K. and explains,

“Which one you prefer to use is your own business, and you can make the choice on the grounds of what you think looks good, or what you were taught in fifth grade, or what you will….Just be consistent in using whichever one you decide works for you.”

This is true for any and all writing you do that will be reviewed by someone else.  That whole Oxford comma debate comes to mind.

Me, I use the Oxford comma.  I view it as essential at times and useful the rest of the time.  But I work with people from all over the world, and they don’t always use it.  And I am not going to go through a forty page report and add that comma just because that’s the way I would do it if I were writing it from scratch.

(Although I’ve worked with a few folks who would.  When they do something like that to my writing (like going through and removing that comma) they get the death stare and a comment about how if that’s the way they want to spend their weekend far be it from me to object.)  (There are reasons I prefer to work from home.)

Because for me the key is consistency.  Use it, don’t use it.  But do so consistently.  I can’t tell you how many reports I’ve reviewed where the first three pages were written with one approach and the next three pages were written with another.

Maybe it’s the outlining.  So, the first section is set up like this:

Section 1

And then the second section is set up like this:

Section 2

I don’t care which you do, but pick one or the other and use it throughout.  And that goes for font choice, font size, bolding, italics, spacing, and indenting.  Including in your footnotes.

All of those are visuals and should be easy to scan and see when they don’t match.  But the same rules should apply to your text.

For example, with the boring day-to-day writing I do, we use a lot of defined terms.  Think a legal contract.  (They name you once and then you’re referred to as “Signee” for the next thirty pages.)  Well, you don’t write one of those and refer to the person by name for the first ten pages, then Signee for the next ten, and then revert to using their name, and then decide to call them the “Other Party to the Agreement” for the rest of it.


This also makes it easier to edit and change something.  So, if you, like me, think “Other Party to the Agreement” is stupid (or vague), you can use a find and replace and get rid of all uses of “Other Party to the Agreement.”

Now, time for a bit of a side note on find and replace.  (Keep in mind, I work in Word, so this applies there and I have no idea if it applies elsewhere.)

Be very careful with find and replace.  If you’re not, you’re going to replace things you didn’t intend to replace.

Say you have a character named Bob and you decide that he’s more of a Rob than a Bob.  DO NOT go into find and replace and type find “Bob” and replace with “Rob.”

Why?  Because it will find every use of bob (note the lack of capital) and replace it with Rob.

If you’re bored, you can try this:  Type into a document the following: Bob, bob, bobby pin, and kabob.  Now, do find and replace and type in Bob in the find field and Rob in the replace field.  See?

What you need to do when you want to do this is choose “More” and then click on “Match Case” and “Find Whole Words Only.”  Play around with it, you’ll see.

(This is one thing I can say for over a decade of boring report writing in a corporate environment.  It taught me all those little things you can do wrong.)  (Usually through awkward mistakes that I then had to explain to my boss.  Be very careful with find and replace…)

That’s also another reason I am insane about saving prior versions of documents and about rereading a clean copy of a document before I consider it final.  It’s the only way to catch those types of errors.  And, if you did do something like that, backing it out is not near as easy as you’d think.

For example, say you did the Bob to Rob thing wrong.  Now you think, “OK, I’ll just reverse it.  Find Rob (match case) and replace with Bob.”

Here’s the problem.  Some of the “Rob”s you’re replacing were mid-word, so replacing them with “Bob” is still going to be a problem.  And what about where you called your character Robert?  Now he’s Bobert.  See how messy it can get?

And, getting back to the consistency point.  If you do decide to change something, but it wasn’t done consistently throughout, changing it becomes that much more difficult.  And you have to change it, because you cannot leave it in that mismatched state.

I like to say that I’m not that picky about details.  I don’t really care if a story describes a tree as an aspen or a poplar or an evergreen.  (Odds are I won’t really know the difference.)  But if you bounce back and forth between writing styles, formatting, word usage, etc.  you will lose me as a reader.

And if you work for me and do that…well, you’re either going to painfully learn how to be consistent or after six months you’ll be on another project or relegated to a secondary role where your lack of consistency doesn’t cause me to spend my weekend making sure that the report is consistent.  Because that is not how I like to spend my weekends, thank you very much.

About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
This entry was posted in Advice, General Musings, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.