Surprising as it may seem, it is not a copy-editor’s job to spend their time checking that an author has their facts right. It is the author’s job to check that any factual information in their work is correct. Research, on the author’s part, is paramount. With the availability of the Internet and other computer resources, there is really no excuse for getting facts wrong. Of course, everybody makes mistakes, but careless detail will bring an author’s credibility crashing to the ground. This applies to fiction, as well as non-fiction.
A copy-editor cannot be expected to have in-depth knowledge of the subject of a book, however, if the author has been careless, then a little research by the copy-editor is acceptable, but not beyond basic fact checking. Generally, the copy-editor should assume that the author has done his – or her – own checking. But what if they have not?
In mainstream publishing, by the time a copy-editor is given a typescript to work on, it has already been past the commissioning or developmental editor. However, as a freelance copy-editor, working directly with clients, I can be faced with a large amount of incorrect factual information. This can result in blurred boundaries between what is a generous copy-edit and a developmental edit, and I believe, in this situation, it is reasonable to offer to carry out the research for an additional fee.
The most common errors of fact, I have come across, occur in the use of:
- Events (historical and recent)
- Quotations (misquotes, and incorrect attribution)
- Timelines (the order in which things happened)
- Ranks, titles, and forms of address
- Foreign words and phrases
- Word origin and use
- Claims based on myth and misconception
Most of the above can be checked online, but it is always a good idea to make use of reference books.
Of course, in fiction, a writer can claim that the Loch Ness monster crawled out of the murky waters to lay an egg, which hatched and grew into a forty-foot Tyrannosaurus that ate all the local inhabitants… but to then state that Loch Ness is a tidal sea estuary will destroy all of the story’s credibility!
However good the idea behind a story, having to continuously check an author’s facts can make a copy-editor’s job heavy going. A good copy-editor should draw to the author’s attention anything that appears suspect.