Editing for Consistency
A while ago my stepmother asked what exactly I do when I edit. I rattled
off many items that I check, declaiming until her eyes glazed over.
Hopefully you are more interested in this topic! Anyway, this year I’ll
devote a few columns to the subject of editing, and the aspect in this
month’s column is consistency.
“Consistency,” according to Ralph Waldo Emerson, “is the hobgoblin of
little minds.” The great philosopher implies that you shouldn’t obsess with
making your life consistent. And with respect to life, I agree: consistency
should not rule your decisions and actions when flexibility is required.
But consistency in fiction is an entirely different matter. The fictional
world is an artificial world and your readers expect it to be consistent. If
you’re inconsistent, if you contradict yourself, your readers - if you have
any - will be frustrated, and not in a good way.
You may think that the goal of not contradicting yourself within your
story is so obvious that it hardly merits mentioning, and so boring that it
does not deserve a column. However, not contradicting yourself, particularly
in a work of any length, is a large part of the editing process.
Furthermore, the concept of consistency goes beyond simply making sure
you have not contradicted yourself. Consistency helps you maintain a theme,
a feeling, a sense of unity; it helps add focus to your fiction.
Finally, some consistency checks are more subtle than others and can play
a huge role in improving your story.
In this column we’ll look at how consistency can be applied in the
editing process to two different major areas: levels of structure and
Levels of Structure
I’m a big proponent of levels of structure in fiction (if you want more,
you can take my class on the subject or you can save money by buying the
e-book offered in my bio to the right). These different levels provide a
valuable schematic for checking consistency. So, below are a few of these
levels and few of the ways in how consistency can matter on each of them.
Did I spell a name the same way in chapters one and seven or did I change
it? It happens, and alas, not all that infrequently (some of my characters’
names are difficult and there are many of them). My collaborator and I
create a file containing all the characters’ names with agreed-upon
spellings. We often include in this file other information pertaining to the
character – age, hair color, relationships – so as to remain consistent on
other points, too.
Do my phrases make sense and are they appropriate? I once read a sentence
with the phrase “her blue eyes were like onyxes.” As onyxes are either black
or striped, I wondered at the author’s choice of metaphor.
I also check whether or not I have mixed my metaphors and whether they
are consistent with the characters and the story.
There are many grammatically correct ways to write a sentence, but far
many more incorrect ways. And even among those that are grammatically
acceptable, only a few will convey my meaning exactly as I want it conveyed.
Many of my nonsensical sentences are a result of previous editing
sessions. Words that should have been deleted somehow remain in the text and
other words which should have been introduced never made it from my brain.
Alas, the more I edit, the more I need to edit!
Proper paragraphs take skill. I study each sentence within a paragraph to
determine whether it belongs. If a paragraph is focused on Mary’s unrequited
love for Frank, then the sentences in that paragraph should be about Mary’s
unrequited love for Frank. Other topics – her lost cell phone, her flat
tire, the hole in her shoe (poor Mary is having a bad day) – probably belong
in other paragraphs. Note that this is an aspect in which consistency
goes beyond simply not contradicting. If you apply it, your
paragraphs will improve.
The majority of my editing is done one scene at a time. Some of the
consistency checks I do are minor but important. For example, if it’s late
in the day, the sun should shine from the west. All the persons in the
scene who should be in a scene should be present and accounted for, even if
they contribute nothing to the emotional content of the scene. For example,
if I’m writing about a king with bodyguards, those bodyguards need to be in
the scene – even if these extras have no dialogue and do nothing but stand
Point of View. I generally believe that a single scene should have
a single point of view. That’s not to say that I never break this rule, but
I have to have a very good reason for doing so. So each scene is checked to
make sure that the POV is consistent.
If you’re creating a series, there’s simply much more to do in terms of
consistency. Events, timing, characters, and so on, all need to be reviewed
to make sure that you’re not breaking your own word. My collaborator and I
have another spreadsheet with our timeline of events, including the birth
years of our characters, so that we know who is alive when.
Other Literature & Other Sources
Do the elements in your story confirm or contradict what has been written
by other authors on the same subject? Now, your story doesn’t have to be
consistent with what other authors have written. It may not be possible to
be consistent with these other authors (perhaps those stories contradict
each other) or perhaps your primary reason for writing your story is to
contradict the other versions; for example, you may be writing Alternative
History or Science Fiction. However, I believe that at a very minimum you
should be aware of when you contradict what others have written, because
this way you can deal with the consequences. One consequence concerns reader
expectations. If your readers expect that Julius Caesar died on the Ides of
March, and for some reason you want to change this, then you need to work in
some information to support your theory or you will confuse them. A second
reason for being consistent with other literature if possible is because it
makes you, the author, look intelligent and well-read instead of – ahem! –
ignorant and lazy.
Consistency in Characters
There are other consistency checks besides the levels of structure. Many
of them have to do with characters. I’ve noticed that some authors gift
their heroes with every virtue, and burden their villains with every vice. I
read one manuscript in which a poverty-stricken heroine refused her evil,
wealthy suitor. The author ascribed the rejected suitor with every negative
attribute, including greed. Well, if he was so avaricious, then why
did he want to marry the impoverished heroine? It was inconsistent. The
simplest fix was to keep the heroine from calling her suitor greedy and
choose a different type of insult.
Characters should behave consistently with their personalities and their
circumstances. If characters are hungry, then those characters should be
looking for (or at least thinking about) food. If they are worried, then
they should not seem confident (or at least it should require an effort). If
they are sad, they should not appear happy. You may again think that this is
obvious but it can actually be difficult to do. For each scene ask yourself,
what is the dominant emotion or concern for each character? Then determine
that every sentence referring to that character – whether it is concerned
with action, internal thought, or dialogue – supports that dominant emotion
or concern, or at the very least, does not contradict it.
Characters should also speak and think consistently. Some of this means
avoiding anachronisms (very important for historical fiction); some of this
means using long words – or short, depending on the character; some of this
means using good grammar – or poor, once more depending on the character. If
your villain is a vulgar barbarian, then he should not sound like an erudite
Finally, characters should show consistency on a continuing basis. When
you’re revising your manuscript, you may want to go through it according to
character. For example, your novel may focus on Jane, but Jane’s mother
makes a few appearances. Start at the beginning of your book, and check
every scene in which Jane’s mother appears – or is even mentioned – while
skipping over other sections in which Jane’s mother plays no role. Are these
mentions of Jane’s mother consistent with each other? Or have unintentional
differences crept in? Doing this for both minor and major characters will
help with the goal of consistency.
It’s not impossible for a character to change – in fact, the growth of a
character is what is known as a character arc – but in fiction there should
be reasons for a changing attitudes and behavior.
This topic can go on and on and I’m afraid I do. In fact, there are many
more other ways in which consistency can be used during the editing process
to improve your writing, but the above is enough for a reminder.
I will return to the subject of editing in other columns later in the
year, so if your eyes have not glazed over, you’ll see me later! In the
meantime, have a good month. If you have questions or comments or you want
to use this column, you can contact me at grossackva at yahoo dot com.
Also, if you like poetry, or Greek mythology, or you simply like
contests, check out the contest being sponsored by the Tapestry of Bronze at
This article is the sole property
of the author. It is produced here with the author's permission. The unauthorized use or reprinting of an article is
illegal, and will be
prosecuted at the discretion of the