Editorial consistency—hardly foolish


“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,
adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”

Whenever I reread this sentence from Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” I remain amazed by its prescience. I have heard it attributed to writers as diverse as Emerson’s boon companion Thoreau, their near contemporary Harriet Beecher Stowe, and even Oscar Wilde. But only Emerson deployed such lacerating wisdom that keeps it as appropriate and true today as when he wrote it.

It was, perhaps, inevitable, that this quotation and the essay it is taken from entered some kind of distinctively American collective consciousness, but it baffles me that its evil cousin—a misquoted, misunderstood nugget—gained ascendency over the original quotation. How many times have you heard someone “quote” it as—consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds?

Granted, thus trimmed-down it could be said to sound almost Wildean, momentarily. A second or two later you’re bound to note that the great Irish wit would neither say something so blunt nor posit something so witless. Attribution aside, however, its real damage arises from an unquestioning acceptance of the misquote and the inept decisions and bad behavior—many of which fall within the realm of publishing practices—it is used to excuse.

Returning to what Emerson actually wrote, it is clear that the particular consistency about which he warns is a person’s tendency to continue walking in one direction, thinking the same thoughts, simply because he’s been told that’s his “path” and those ideas are what he’s expected to hold. Emerson equates this consistency with conformity, and were he writing today, I feel fairly sure the word compliance would crop up a few times as well.

When we shift attention to consistency in writing and editing, Emerson no doubt would approve for the simple reason that it enables us to become deeply engaged by what we read, and that fosters our questioning our earlier pathbound ideas. When well observed, this sort of consistency actually frees readers from stumbling blocks that otherwise would interfere with their becoming engrossed by what they read.

But beware! Editorial consistency sometimes dates its own evil relative. For example, I admit to having personal bugaboos—widely practiced, often accepted writing conventions that set my teeth on edge. Split infinitives usually just sound wrong. Most nouns, when treated like verbs, make me want to sob. (You won’t catch me “journaling” anytime soon.) And for some unknowable reason that probably stems from genetic predisposition, the word towards hurts my eyes, and as I edit a manuscript I always knock off its terminal “s.

consistency speed bumpLike any editor, I’ve had my share of contretemps over this kind of quibble, but one agreement always reigns during such arguments: the necessity for factual and editorial consistency within any given manuscript. It is dismaying, then, to read contemporary nonfiction that was published without the benefit of a “disinterested,” trained third party’s review.

The need for factual consistency is self-evident. The author owes it to her readers to get data-driven information right and to cite it consistently. For example, in editing an academic essay I came across a passage quoted from a highly influential recent tome. Within the space of this one short paragraph, war was declared both in 1876 and 1867. I assumed my author had made a simple typo and asked her to verify the source’s wording and fix whichever year was typed in wrong. She discovered, however, that her transcription of the passage was 100 percent accurate; it wasn’t her typo, but that of the original author. We considered simply correcting the errant year or using an ellipsis to remove the troublesome date, but finally settled on the old (and old-fashioned) standby “[sic].”

Any editor worth her salt (and some writers, too) recognize the importance of editorial consistency, even if it isn’t immediately apparent to the layperson. Lapses are the readerly equivalent of speed bumps: they don’t keep you from reaching your destination, but they certainly slow you down and interrupt your concentration.

I don’t think it is too great a generalization to say that all authors seek and rely on their readers’ trust, and one sure way to squander your chance of earning it is to put forth information inconsistently. Gaffes in this area can foster doubts about the text’s veracity and diminish its literary worth. For example, in a novel I was proofreading, a pivotal character’s hair color caused me to query the author. She started out as a blonde (chapter 1), but in chapter 7 was a brunette, and shortly thereafter blazed forth as a redhead (chapter 8). We weren’t told how or why these changes occurred. Reportedly the author was both shocked and appreciative, because her character’s coif of many colors would have called into question her ability to notice an important clue that later helps her determine the reason for the murders she witnessed.

But how can an editor maintain such consistency? A certain kind of nit-picky mind (one Emerson possibly would treat with disdain) and attention to detail help, as does a sharp memory. Before I had much experience with editing or writing, I was blithely unaware of the booby traps that surely were present in the things I read. By the time I had developed my word-worker’s chops, however, I was forever deprived of that former innocence. Now I am blessed-cursed with the kind of critical faculty that brings me to a full stop whenever I encounter inconsistent spelling or hair color or word usage (not to mention towards).

sample style sheet maintains consistencyThere is also the once-standard, now too-often-neglected tool that I consider a critical component of good editing: a well-designed, carefully maintained style sheet. When I first became a freelance editor, I was required to compile a thorough style sheet for every project. (Certain in-house editors actually refused to accept a manuscript turned in without one.) Today, however, many editors with whom I’ve worked have no idea what this tool is; some even asked me to define the term. Others, although they claimed they prepared style sheets routinely turned in puny single-pagers that were little better than nothing. They always ran aground when tricky style issues didn’t fit neatly into their self-developed templates, the response to which was simply to ignore the ill-fitting detail. Predictably, that practice resulted in glaring instances of inconsistent usage.

Just to bring things up to now, an editor recently swore he was well acquainted with preparing style sheets, but he thought my question indicated that the manuscript I was assigning was going directly to digital. His impeccable style sheet was of the “cascading” variety, exclusively devoted to formalizing all the code he had laboriously (and counterproductively) incorporated into the text and had to be weeded out in order to create setting copy. Meanwhile, it offered nothing in the way of being the authority for spelling, punctuation, and usage I needed.

A useful style sheet—even for a multiauthor book—is not difficult to develop or keep current, and using and updating it soon becomes second nature. Once you recognize how far this tool can take you toward assuring editorial consistency, the small amount of additional effort doesn’t seem foolish at all.

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