Consistency – an important step in the preening process…

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In my earlier posts I talked about preening the final draft and the importance writing proper paragraphs.  As you go through your final draft, one thing to check for is consistency.  Here are some tips on how to handle the most common consistency problems…  

Tense – past, present or future?

The tense used should be carefully chosen and used consistently throughout the document. Jumping between tenses is very confusing to your reader.  It is also very confusing when you describe things that you have finished, or that have already happened, using the present or future tenses.  If it’s done, then it’s past tense – it’s that simple.  You may see others using present or future tense, particularly in their thesis, but don’t follow this bad example.  Remember, always, the goal of good writing is clarity – if you keep that in mind when choosing your tense – the choice is simple.  Done – past; in progress – present; planned – future.

Consistency in referencing…

Referencing someone else’s work is done in one of two ways. If you mention their name specifically, then the date of the publication should follow in brackets. For example; “Hicks and Steffler (l990) found that…”   Otherwise, the name(s) and date should both appear within the brackets, as in: “The CDG scheme has been shown to be… (Hicks and Steffler l990).” When referencing multiple authors (3 or more) of a single publication, there are two possibilities.  Some writers opt to named all authors the first time it is referenced. Subsequent references then make use of et al. as in: “Jones et al. (1992) have found that….” (note the period after “al”).  Others opt to use et al. from the first reference to a particular work.  This is acceptable as well, since your list of references will provide the full details of all authors. The important thing is to pick one of these two approaches and then stick with it throughout  your entire report or thesis.

Variable names…

Most scientific papers require a literature review and in engineering especially, that generally involves dealing with a lot of equations.  It is important to remember a couple of key rules of consistency when writing your literature review.  First, no two variables can have the same name or symbol and second, each variable can have only one name.  For example, flow depth cannot be Y in some places and D in others – you must choose one or the other.  Similarly, you cannot use D for the depth, the diameter and the density.  Each needs its own symbol.  This may sound obvious but you would be amazed at how many theses I have read in which both of these rules were violated repeatedly, rendering the whole discussion completely incomprehensible.  Invariably, the problems originate in the literature review since many people write their literature review using the variable names and symbols they find in each reference.  Sure it’s a ton of work to bring all of the equations in your literature review to a common notation – but that doesn’t excuse you from doing it.  The goal, as always, is clarity.

Figures and Tables…

It is also important to use a consistent approach when referencing figures and tables (e. g., Figure l or figure l).  Pick one and use it throughout. For obvious reasons, if you have chosen the “Figure l” approach, you cannot use “table 1”, but rather must reference it as “Table 1” to be truly consistent. Other places where consistency is important include paragraph indentation, spaces between paragraphs, fonts, and page numbering.

These may all seem like picky details – but an attention to detail demonstrates a meticulous nature to your supervisor and/or client and a lack of attention to detail does exactly the opposite.

In my next post I’ll talk about content and style…

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