Have you ever been in the middle of reading a novel or a short story, when you happen upon a mistake about something you’re familiar with and get so annoyed that you don’t even want to finish the book?
Copy editors, who are among the last to review a manuscript before it goes to print, should watch out for any factual errors that might turn off readers and make them put down the book.
For instance, if you’re familiar with Philadelphia, and a character walks down Walnut Street and makes a left onto Fourteenth Street, you might wonder if the author has even been to the city. (There’s no Fourteenth Street in Philadelphia. The street between Thirteenth and Fifteenth is Broad Street.)
If you know a lot about weapons, and two characters are facing off in a duel in 1810 and one pulls out a Colt revolver, then your spidey senses might start tingling. (Samuel Colt wasn’t even born until 1814.)
Copy editors working in fiction should definitely check proper nouns, including real people’s names, places and brand names. I also encourage them to verify anything that might be incorrect, such as whether Fourteenth Street exists in Philadelphia or when the Colt revolver was invented. Can a character turn left onto A Street from B Street? Can you transfer at the Times Square subway stop onto the 6? Is that museum open on Mondays? Was Pearl Harbor bombed on a Saturday or a Sunday?
One thing I always check is whether quotations are precise, especially ones in epigraphs. These are often either not attributed to the right person or completely made up and perpetuated by internet memes.
It’s important to remember that it’s the copy editor’s job to make sure the author is aware of these inaccuracies or errors, but in the end, it’s the author’s right to allow their readers to suspend belief, especially if an inaccuracy might help drive the story.
When you’re fact-checking, don’t forget that you can always call or email someone who might be able to tell you what you need to know. There are a lot of resources online. Here are some of my favorites:
Christine Ma (@mschristinema) is a copy editor and proofreader specializing in children's and young adult books. Prior to starting her own freelance business, she was an in-house copy editor or senior production editor at two major book publishers, a metropolitan newspaper, and an educational magazine publisher. Among the books Christine copy edited are three Caldecott Medal winners, two National Book Award finalists, a New York Times Best Illustrated Children's Book, and numerous New York Times bestsellers.
See Christine at the 2018 ACES conference in Chicago when she presents on Editing Children's Books.