The Writer’s Toolbox – It’s the Little Things

The length of a flight from Prague to New York. The construction date of the Sydney Opera House. The name the state hospital used twenty years ago. The number of seats in a particular make and model of jet. What the gay marriage law was in California in 2012. Which direction the Amazon flows.

Crazy-picky things that editors with no social life obsess about getting correct?but that really don’t matter. Right?

Wrong.

There’s a reason behind our madness, our research, our insistence that nothing can be presumed. That authors must check and double check their facts?and that we’ll still give the manuscript a once-over to be sure. It’s simple: we want to keep the reader in the story.

The role of a copyeditor?who edits for grammar, spelling, punctuation, consistency, and accuracy?is to be invisible. If we do our job right, the reader doesn’t notice us. they’re immersed in the story, in the characters? world, and the outside world of words and facts is secondary to the reading experience.

But when reality bursts into the story world, it spoils the illusion?sort of like breaking the fourth wall in television, but unintentionally, and with disappointing results.

Inaccuracies, errors, and inconsistencies can take a reader out of the story, and even if it happens on a minor level, It’s enough to change the reader experience that the author was hoping to create. That’s what we as editors are trying to avoid.

Recently I enjoyed a Big Five book by a nationally bestselling author, and I was completely engrossed in the trials and tribulations of the main character, a suburban madam with a complicated past. Then I got to the Thanksgiving scene. The main character lived in a city not far from where I live?and her son went to school in the same district where my daughter attends school, and in the current time period. So when the character’s son gets a half-day holiday the day before (US) Thanksgiving, I put down the book for a moment.

Wait a minute?the kids in this district get the whole week off.

The thing is, this is a local author. She knows the area, and she probably based the scene on the fact that the neighboring counties do have a half-day holiday the day before Thanksgiving. Maybe the editors, too, presumed that the author knew the area well enough for them not to question her knowledge. Maybe they didn’t think it was important to check; after all, how many people would notice or really care if a specific county’s school holidays were accurate?

True, probably not too many. And at some point you have to draw the line between nitpicking for nitpicking’s sake and creating accuracy for a better reader experience. After all, the error didn’t ruin the story for me.

On the other hand, it did take me out of the story, and for several minutes I stopped thinking about the suburban madam’s problems and let my wait-a-second thought process derail my enjoyment of the book. And That’s not ideal for either reader or writer.

As a writer you’ve done so much work on your book that it’d be a shame for the readers’s concentration to break, even for a short while, over an issue That’s avoidable. Resolving inaccuracies in fiction won’t bring about world peace (well, maybe it could?what a great novel idea that’d be!), but it will make your readers? experience as smooth as possible, as escapist as possible, as real as possible. And after all, That’s what the writer-reader connection is all about.

Christina M. Frey is a book editor, literary coach, and lover of great writing. For more tips and techniques for your toolbox, follow her on Twitter (@turntopage2) or visit her blog.

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