How to Prevent Continuity Errors and Protect Story Arcs

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When asked what developmental editing entails, most editors describe many things, including the importance of continuity. Continuity errors can destroy a solid story, and ensuring consistency among character development, plot, world building, and more can make all the difference in a reader’s experience. Continuity errors in movies or books can ruin the viewer or reader’s experience because they pull the audience out of the story. A great writer maintains continuity in all elements of a story, including the characters’ physical appearances, habits, language, and more. Continuity and story arcs are paramount to a book’s success, which is why editors follow particular style guides and fill out style sheets.

Style Sheets Are Not Just for Editors

Writers desperate to keep continuity errors at bay are encouraged to create style sheets as well, as they are useful in preserving true descriptions and actions. No matter where you are in the development of your manuscript, you can create your style sheet as you write, or you can leave it until after the finished first draft. As an editor, building a style sheet as I edit is crucial.

If you want to make sure your characters and story arcs are consistent, make character lists. You don’t want your readers to notice that the main character’s eye color changed from chapter one to chapter seven; even minor details can take readers out of the story. You may want to create a list for places your characters visit as well, especially if you are writing speculative fiction or any genre in which you are trying to recall a complex setting.

Take Ownership of Your Style Sheet

Make your style sheet your own, and include whatever you feel is necessary to keep continuity at the forefront. If you’re building a complex world in a fantasy novel, you may want to list any made-up words or locations that are tricky to keep track of. The more detailed your style sheet, the better, as you will refer to it and update it throughout the revision and editing process. Don’t worry if you already wrote your first draft and do not have a style sheet; your editor will create a detailed style sheet for you throughout the entire editing process. If you turn your book to your publisher—or your freelance copyeditor if you are self-publishing—handing over a style sheet you have already worked on can move the process along in the right direction.

Take a Step Back from Your Manuscript

Unfortunately, continuity errors are something we all need to look out for in any story-telling project, whether we are novelists, memoirists, or nonfiction writers. Style sheets are incredibly helpful for everyone, especially for writers working on industry-specific writing with special jargon and terms. Sometimes continuity errors do not show up until after the first draft is written.

Little issues with characters or sub plots are bound to pop up. Don’t stress! If your deadline allows, let your manuscript rest for a few weeks, and then take a second look. Sometimes letting your mind take a break will prepare you to catch a new round of minor or major consistency errors. However, many writers have a hard time distancing themselves from their work—that’s where I come in.

Depending on your editing needs (copyediting, developmental, proofreading, etc.), an editor can be that fresh pair of second eyes your manuscript needs to soar!