Over the years, consistency has taken a beating from several famous writers, at least one famous composer, and a multitude of English teachers.
Oscar Wilde called it "the last refuge of the unimaginative."
"Consistency is contrary to nature, contrary to life," said Aldous Huxley. "The only completely consistent people are dead."
John Cage said, "As far as consistency of thought goes, I prefer inconsistency."
Mark Twain once gave an entire speech blasting consistency.
"Consistency is a virtue for trains," said Hungarian novelist Stephen Vizinczey.
But it was probably Ralph Waldo Emerson who contributed most to the soiling of consistency's reputation when he said, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."
English teachers do their part, too. Many teach students to avoid repetition at all costs. If you have to use a word twice, they say, don't. Find a synonym.
So students learn to use different words to express the same thing.
Is consistency the last refuge of the unimaginative? Contrary to life? A virtue only for trains? When is consistency a foolish consistency?
The answer to all these questions is "Not online."
Online, users need to find their way and accomplish their tasks quickly -- without, as Steve Krug would say, being forced to think.
Online, consistency is crucial.
Consistency in Online Technical Writing
Consistency is especially crucial in instructional writing, such as help text, procedures, and demos. How can users follow a procedure if the terminology changes, if you call something a screen one time and a window the next? It's not the user's job to figure out what you mean. It's your job to make it obvious.
What happens when you choose a word because it's consistent with industry usage, but the word has more than one meaning and some of your readers are in industries in which the word means something else? In that case, you must provide enough context to make the meaning clear.
I failed to do that in the title of my last article, a reader informed me.
"I wanted to alert you that you are misusing the word 'scan,'" wrote Lani Kai Akers, "and I ended up reading a different article than I was expecting. 'Scan' means to examine point by point, in great detail (as a Scan-tron form -- the computer examines every answer for correctness). The word you wanted was 'skim,' which means to read superficially and rapidly."
What I told her was this: I'd thought about using the word "skim" but had settled on "scan" for three reasons:
But that's not the point. The point is that the title was misleading to at least one reader and most likely to others. Titles should never be misleading, especially online. I should have provided enough context to make the meaning clear or not used the word.
Ways to Strive for Consistency
Consistency is also important in site architecture, design, and navigation. But I'll address that another time.
Consistency is not just for trains and dead people. Strive for it in your writing.
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