With fact checkers being a dying breed, copyeditors are often called upon to take up the slack. But how much slack? What facts should a copyeditor be concerned with in the normal course of editing?
The answer, as always, is it depends. One thing it depends on is whether we’re talking about “true facts,” that is, facts that occur in the real world, or “fake facts”—those facts the author creates in the course of telling a story.
In A Copyeditor’s Handbook, Amy Einsohn notes that a heavy copyedit includes verifying and revising “any facts that are incorrect.” Any is a broad term, and one of my copyediting students recently asked, “I understand this would include dates of events or incorrect references, but how far are we supposed to go to verify, for example, statistics or period pieces? Can’t I just query?”
In any editing situation, the author is supposed to be the subject expert, while you are the language expert (the author may be a language expert too, of course). Unless you’re hired as a subject expert to help with the content, you’re not expected to know or check subject details.
For example, if the statistics are from a report you can access, you can verify that they match; you don’t need to know if the numbers themselves are valid. That’s the author’s responsibility.
With period pieces, you should be able to verify well-known things, such as the ruler of a certain country in a given year, but you’re not expected to research whether that ruler preferred veal or pork for his dinner. Again, that’s the author’s responsibility.
Have a conversation with the author or client before beginning work so that you both understand what will and won’t be checked. I often state that I check “easily verifiable facts,” such as names, dates, and job titles. I devote no more than 5 to 10 minutes researching a fact. After that, I query.
One way copyeditors compete is by becoming subject experts. This opens up the range of facts you might check or the content problems you’d be expected to at least identify, if not resolve. I specialize in business editing, especially marketing. I can offer my clients a more informed edit because I’m familiar with the topic. I still take only 5 to 10 minutes to check a fact, but there are more facts I can check quickly because I know the topic.
What about fictional facts: character names and details, locations, and dates? Authors create entire universes when they write fiction. How would you know what the author intended?
As with true facts, you’re not expected to be a subject expert. You couldn’t possibly know that the author intended the main character’s birthday to be in June but wrote July instead.
What you can do is keep a close eye on consistency—in characters, places, dates, timing, and so on. The details have to be consistent for the story to seem real, and the copyeditor’s job is to help with that consistency. It’s recording and cross-checking rather than actually researching.
Amy Schneider is a pro at this. She keeps four style sheets for fiction, which help her track all details about the characters, the setting, and the plot. (Members can read about her approach to editing fiction in “The Nuts and Bolts of Fiction Copyediting” in Copyediting newsletter, April–May 2013).
In fiction, you can be a specialist, too. Edit one story in an author’s universe, and you become a subject expert on that universe. Especially if you follow Amy’s method for style sheets, you are perfectly placed to make sure subsequent stories are consistent with the first.
What facts do you check? Do you opt out of checking facts at all? Share your experiences in the comments section!