Working with publishers versus indie clients

Editors often want to freelance for book publishers and packagers as a way to have reliable clients who provide ongoing work. But there are some differences in working directly for the client (as with an indie author) and working for a publisher.

When I’m doing a developmental edit for a book publisher, I usually have a much more extensive familiarity with the acquisitions editor than with the author, so while I’m careful to keep my queries and comments neutral and polite, as far as I’m concerned, authors come and go. It’s the acquisitions editor I have to keep happy. I make sure I understand what the AE wants, how this book fits in with a series (if it does), what it’s supposed to accomplish, who its audience is intended to be, and so on.

I rarely have any opportunity to have a conversation with the author about how the project came about or what they are trying to achieve with it, though I will usually be part of an introductory phone call where we hash out logistics. There’s little personal connection and I generally have almost no sense of what the author is like in “real” life. I don’t have to have that to do the editing job. It helps, but it’s not imperative.

However, over the years a fair amount of my editing work has come from individual clients—people who are working on book proposals, novel manuscripts, memoirs, you name it. They’re trying to make their work commercially salable, but they’re also (usually) trying to achieve a vision for the project. They have a dream of what the book is going to be, and they want me to help them achieve it. They don’t want an uncredited coauthor, they want a mentor. My job is equal parts offering information from my experience, providing feedback on their project, and holding their hand.

In every case, you have to edit the project you have according to the expectations of the audience and the client. You can’t make it the project you wish you had or the story you would have written. Editing is not about being right, or proving that you’re right, but about helping your client create a ms that matches their vision and appeals to its audience.

When you work for a publisher, you’re usually freer to make changes to a manuscript and to suggest revisions to ensure the ms adheres to the publisher’s expectations, whereas if you’re working directly with the author, your goal is to help the author create the most polished work they are capable of creating, which is another thing altogether.

For example, if you’re editing a romance for a publisher, you can insist that the development of the love relationship must take center stage (that’s what a romance is, after all!) and show the author various ways this might be accomplished. If the author doesn’t find a way to meet these requirements, the publisher can cancel the book. Everyone involved in the process understands this, so everyone (ideally) works together to accomplish the goals.

That’s not the case when the author is your direct client. You can suggest, as a consultant, that romance readers will expect the love relationship to take center stage, and you can offer ideas for how such a revision can be accomplished, but you’re in no position to insist on anything. That’s not your role.

In general (this is not always the case), an indie author will need more hand-holding and less criticism. If they wanted to deal with gate-keepers, they’d be pursuing traditional publication. So you can’t act like a gate-keeper. You have to be their cheerleader and their teammate.

One question I’m often asked is, “If you’re editing for a publisher, can you phrase queries to say something like, ‘The publisher has asked that you overhaul x and y’? Or would the publisher have already communicated that to the author?”

This question is more complex than it may first appear. It will sound strange but you can’t actually assume the AE has read the full ms very closely. So, you can’t assume that the AE knows more about the project than you do. (The reason this happens is authors can be contracted for several books and the AE just passed the second one in the series off to you; or they can be contracted based on a proposal, but not the full ms and the full ms is just passed along to you; or the AE can have a crunch of deadlines, etc., so that a particular ms may not get much attention.)

In general, though, you and the AE will decide before you start your edit what the main issues you’ll need to address are. Sometimes the AE will have a list of things for you to attend to but most often you’ll work this out together.

What that means is that what you (the DE) say in your revision letter is what the AE/publisher will enforce as the standard for manuscript acceptance. That doesn’t mean the author can’t decide to reject an edit or can’t solve a problem in a different way or anything like that. It does mean that if the author hasn’t delivered a satisfactory revision, and it can be shown that they did not follow the revision letter, then the contract can be vacated. This is made clear to the author during the contracting process (and is almost always a clause in the contract—a “satisfactory revision” being one that basically meets the guidance you give in the revision letter.)

This doesn’t mean that you have to dump everything into the revision letter. On the contrary, you need to focus on those most crucial items that, if addressed, would greatly improve the ms. It does mean that you have to be sure that you’re clearly addressing each of the main dev issues in the revision letter.

The author is going to know that publication is contingent on a successful revision so you don’t need to state that. At the same time, the author also knows they have some leeway in how they do the revision. Occasionally the AE will decide (or you and the AE will decide together) that some items are deal-breakers. Those are items that allow no wiggle room. The author must address them or the book is doomed. You do need to call these out in the revision letter.

Generally, but not always, these are items the AE and the author already have agreed about, so you just remind the AU of that: “As you and AE agreed, the ms needs to be rewritten in the third person . . . .”

Sometimes you may discover things that were not discussed with the author ahead of time but which are important enough to be deal-breakers. You should discuss those with the AE before you deliver the edit and work out, with the AE, the language you’ll use in the revision letter: “Author, during my edit, I reached the conclusion that the part where you kill off the main character and let his dog tell the rest of the story does not work as well as you had hoped. I talked to AE and we agreed that this does need to change before publication. . . .”

If the nonnegotiables have been discussed ahead of time then you just remind the author that they “need to” make a certain change (as opposed to “consider making”). If the author returns a revision without the necessary changes, you will want to make sure the AE’s got your back before you say anything, then get the right language from the AE. For example, you would ask, “AE, you mentioned that the dog’s perspective has to go. The author is pushing back. Is this something I need to insist on?”

If it’s not a deal-breaker but the AE would really like to see the change, you would say something like that: “AE would really like to see Brenda take actions that would distinguish her from a mushroom so I’ve indicated places throughout where she could be shown doing something other than hiding under a log . . . .” (Perhaps more diplomatically stated than that.)

We would rarely just say “the publisher requires/insists” although sometimes the AE may ask us to do so. (That’s actually more common in NF than in fiction.)

One caveat: in the interests of not insulting people if you don’t have to, never ask the AE if they actually read the ms or how closely they read it or express surprise that they didn’t notice a glaring problem that you’ve spotted. You don’t want to put the AE on the spot or make the AE feel criticized (that’s not your role; you’re not their supervisor). I’m merely suggesting that you shouldn’t assume the AE has carefully read the ms. If you spot a big problem but the AE hasn’t mentioned it, don’t assume, “Well, if the AE wanted me to fix it they would have said so.” Maybe, maybe not.

When I’m working directly for the author and I’ve established a friendly rapport with them, I’ll be a little more relaxed in my approach, but I’m always mindful that a manuscript is a precious child to the author and just as you wouldn’t make fun of the bug eyes on someone’s kid, you don’t use their manuscript as a source of levity, even if you’re sure the author will find your remarks as hilarious as you do.

With an indie author, I usually have a conversation before I begin the edit where I find out the author’s purpose. This helps guide my edit. What is the ms intended to do? If it’s an inspirational novel, it should have an uplifting message. If it’s a romance, it must have a happily-ever-after.

I always ask for any supporting material the author has, such as a query letter (sent to an agent if the author is seeking traditional publication), book blurb (the brief description found on the back cover of a book or in the online catalog for it), and/or chapter summary/synopsis. These supplemental materials can alert me to a disconnect between what the author thinks they have and what they actually do have.

Consider the Client (Working with Publishers)

As a teacher of developmental editing, I want students to get comfortable with being able to advise big solutions to big problems. Often this is the best way to truly help an author produce superior work. It is also an invaluable method for stepping back to see the big picture (a poorly constructed conflict, for example) versus focusing on minor details (the author uses too many dialogue tags). The first is a failure of storytelling; the second is merely a housekeeping detail.

But when editing for the big picture, you have to consider the client. When I’m working for book publishers, they have almost always scheduled a book for production (and this includes getting marketing and promotion lined up) by the time it gets to me. I have a limited amount of time to produce my edit and the author has a limited amount of time to produce a revision. I have to consider these constraints in my suggestions. I may very well think that story was ill-conceived and poorly executed and that it needs to be completely reconsidered starting from page 1.

But the author cannot do this in the time they have. Most publishers only allow a month or two for this revision; most authors have other jobs/obligations and cannot devote more than a few hours a day to the process. And if I’m the cause of an author missing a deadline, even if the AE in theory agrees with me about the ms’s problems, I’m never going to work for that company again.

So I’m unlikely to tell such an author to rewrite her first-person ms in third, since that’s a fairly massive undertaking to do right. But if this is a coaching client committed to exploring her process, then that may be exactly what I recommend.

If I can’t use my big solution, I don’t just abandon the problem. I try to see if a smaller solution will work. For example, I once edited a novel with a first-person narrator who was in her head too much. A shift to third POV often solves this, but the author didn’t have time to revise that extensively. I did suggest the protagonist adopt a cat so she could have someone to say these things out loud to. Turning an interior monologue into some snappy patter at least gave the story a feeling of movement (and made the character more relatable).

I’m no fan of prologues (I feel these are a lazy way to work backstory into a novel) but for one ms, I had the author chop the first three chapters, then write a brief prologue to show the backstory rather than trying to figure out a way to make it more integrated into the forward action. It was a gimmicky solution to the problem, in my opinion, but the most realistic one.

So, while I am all in favor of picking the solution that will solve the most problems in the most elegant way, I’m also a realist: sometimes we need to come up with a shortcut.

Beta reading as training for DE

Many self-publishing authors look for beta readers to give them perspective on their novels before they go to a professional editor for further help. An author doesn’t need a developmental editor to say the whole storyline is implausible and they yawned from beginning to end. Any reader of fiction can probably relay that information.

Doing a few beta reads is a great way to get a sense of the kinds of problems you’ll encounter as a dev editor, and it will give you some insight into author-editor relationships. It’s a low-risk way to dip your toes in the water.

If you’re interested in doing fiction development for a career, try volunteering as a beta on a few projects. You’ll soon learn if it’s for you!

What’s the Difference?

A beta reader is generally just reporting their experience as a reader – “I thought too many events were implausible” – whereas in development, we try to give more guidance than that based on an informed opinion. That is, we understand how fiction works, how to solve problems that arise, and otherwise have professional expertise that sets us apart from readers who simply enjoy reading.

Often, beta readers are discouraged from trying to offer such guidance as without experience and training it’s easy to send an author down the wrong road or to simply not understand what an author is trying to accomplish. So, instead of trying to solve the problems in the manuscript, your goal is to find them and (for your purposes, not the author’s) try to figure out what’s causing them.

Doing beta reads can be a good way to sharpen your skills and even to start building a clientele. People who trust your beta reads will be more likely to be willing to pay you to do a dev edit.

To become a beta reader, hang out on Twitter and look for #amwriting hashtags. Many of these authors will be interested in finding beta readers. There are also beta reader groups like Writers Helping Writers on Facebook.

2021 Course Catalog Has Arrived!

Club Ed readers have overwhelmingly asked for more instructor-led classes, so 2021 will include a whole bunch of offerings. The catalog through May 2021 has been added here and you can also see it below.

Instructor-led classes for new and aspiring developmental editors

Instructor-led classes are held within a specified time period. They feature weekly assignments to practice your skills and individual instructor feedback on your work. All course materials are accessed from the online classroom.

Online discussions allow you and your fellow students to ask the instructor questions and to toss around ideas. These discussions are held asynchronously (read and post as you have availability); you do not need to be anywhere at any particular time in order to participate, although assignments will need to be submitted by the deadlines provided in the course materials.

If you have any questions about any of the classes, please email the Resort Director:

New! Naked Editing class starts January 4, 2021

NEW! Starts January 4, 2021

$50  4 weeks (through January 31), instructor-led

This class is intended for editors, new and experienced, who are interested in following along as an experienced editor performs a developmental edit on a complete fiction manuscript. It is a reading-intensive class and the more you participate in the online discussions, the more you’ll get from the class.

Note: Recent current events force me to point out that there is no actual nudity by anyone in this class.

You’ll follow along as the instructor:

  • performs a brief manuscript assessment and first read-through, showing notes and reactions
  • identifies the main developmental issues and begins the manuscript edit
  • completes the edit and drafts the revision letter
  • revises the edit to focus on the overarching argument/theme of the edit

Each week, you’ll have a chance to follow along and do your own practice, although there are no assignments. You will be able to participate in online (asynchronous) discussions of the issues raised throughout the edit and to ask questions about why the editor has made the choices she’s made or to describe your findings and what you might have done.

This is a new manuscript that has not been used in any other EFA or Club Ed classes.

Through November 15, 2020, for a $10 discount, use the coupon code TG2021

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Solving for X

A while back I took a class on the algebra of symmetries and it turned out to be taught by a philosopher masquerading as a mathematics professor. Algebra, he told us, comes from the word al-jabr, which means restoration by balancing. “Restoring the unknown,” the teacher said. That is what algebra is. I like to think of it as making the unknown known, which is not unlike editing.

He went on to talk about how having a zero around is very helpful when you’re solving for X. “Doing nothing is an important skill,” he said.

Who knew there was a Tao of mathematics? Doing nothing is an important part of the process of making the unknown known. True of mathematics and true of story development.

  1. Sometimes, when you’re not sure what is going wrong with the ms you’re working on, a good solution is to not do anything right now. Come back to the project tomorrow with fresh eyes.
  2. We don’t need to remark on every possible problem that we see in a ms. If we are already advising the author to create a stronger central conflict, develop clearer character arcs, and attend to the setting, we risk confusing and overwhelming them if we also talk about their overuse of adverbs and the number of unnecessary dialogue tags they’re using. Sometimes the best thing to do about a story problem is nothing.
  3. Often we try to be too accommodating to clients. They don’t have a big enough budget, so we cut our fees; they have a looming deadline so we rush to complete the project. But sometimes the best thing to do is just let the client make their objections and then . . . do nothing. I don’t mean, “Don’t bother answering them back.” I do mean, “Don’t do anything to solve their problems for them.” For a client with a tight budget, a sympathetic, “I understand, this is a big investment” shows you hear them without making you responsible for their problem. Don’t be in a rush to give away your work.


Using global queries for recurring developmental problems

For problems that recur throughout a series of paragraphs, a scene, a chapter, or an entire ms, developmental editors will sometimes use a shortcut: “You do a lot of info-dumping throughout; I recommend cutting it back.” The problem with this approach is that if the author could identify where the info-dumping is occurring, they wouldn’t be doing it in the first place. The author needs more guidance.

Conversely, in an attempt to provide this guidance, editors sometimes provide a full description of the problem each time they encounter it. So, on page 1 they write a query that says, “The highlighted paragraph is an example of info-dumping, that is, providing more information than the reader needs to understand what’s happening. The problem with info-dumping is that it slows down the pacing of the story, interferes with the forward action, and risks losing the reader’s engagement. I recommend deleting this paragraph.”

That’s a perfectly good query. But then the editor uses a similar one on page 2 and on page 3, three similar queries on page 4, and two on page 5.

This isn’t necessary.

I often use a global query that says what the overall problem is, why it’s a problem, and how the author can fix it. Then I refer back to that query when I encounter more examples of the same problem. Using a global query means I don’t have to repeat myself as much and the author doesn’t have to feel like I’m hammering them over the head with the problem – but I’m still doing my job.

A Global Query Example

Here’s an example of how I might phrase such a query:

“AU: Here and throughout, there’s a fair amount of unnecessary exposition – that is,  more information than the reader needs to understand what’s happening. This is often referred to as info-dumping. The problem with info-dumping is that it slows down the pacing of the story, interferes with the forward action, and risks losing the reader’s engagement. I’ve highlighted areas that can be deleted without affecting the overall story.”

Then, when the author encounters highlighted areas, they know this is info-dumping and can be deleted.

Some Caveats to This Approach

When using a global query:

  • If I think a particular bit of info-dumping doesn’t need to be deleted but needs to be placed elsewhere in the story or integrated differently, I’ll write a new query that says that. You can extrapolate this to mean that if any instance of a recurring problem requires a different solution from the one provided in the global query, you should write a new query regarding that particular instance. This is a good opportunity to educate the author: why is this instance of the problem treated differently from the others?
  • If it’s been a while (ten or so pages) since the last instance of the problem, I will remind the author about what the highlighting means (“As above, unnecessary exposition here. Consider deleting.”) I don’t need a full explanatory query, just a reminder.
  • If there is more than one recurring problem, do not try to color-code your edit (“blue highlights are for info-dumping and yellow highlights are for head-hopping.”) The author should not need a decoder ring to understand your edit. If there is more than one recurring problem, use highlighting for one and some other solution for the other. For example, in the info-dumping and head-hopping example above, highlighting could be used to identify the info-dumping, and line edits could be used to help the author see how to correct the head-hopping. In such an instance, you could use a global query to describe the head-hopping once overall and then use brief queries elsewhere in the ms (“As above, the editied section contains head-hopping. Edit OK?”)

The global query is placed where you first encounter the problem. You fully explain the problem and how it affects several paragraphs/chapters/whatever is true. Don’t worry if this query becomes lengthy. Unlike CEs, DEs don’t get brownie points for concise queries. We don’t need to belabor them but we do need to provide enough information for the author to understand what the problem is and to have a clear handle on how to fix it.

I generally use the phrase “global query” to refer to a recurring problem. For an overall query that summarizes the collected problems in a scene or chapter, you can use a general query, which we might call an overview or overall query: “AU: This chapter introduces us to Sweetie Pie, that adorable scamp, but nothing of consequence happens and the reason why Marcel takes such a dislike to SP is unclear. To solve these problems, I suggest . . . .”

I always place such queries where the author needs to encounter them in the revision process (for example, at the start of the scene that needs a rewrite) so that the problems don’t come as a surprise.


Diagnosing conflict problems in a manuscript

When editing fiction, you’re likely to encounter manuscripts that have problems with the conflict. Conflict, as you probably know, drives narrative.

Consider this: Just now, I wanted a cup of tea so I went and made one.

So what, right? I mean, you may be perfectly happy that I am now sipping some of Twining’s English Breakfast, but we couldn’t call that a story.

Try this instead: Just now, I wanted a cup of tea, so I went to the kitchen to make one but discovered the tea canister was empty. So I grabbed my car keys and my mask to make a quick run to the grocery store, but my car wasn’t where I parked it.

Now we’re getting somewhere. We don’t know where yet but we know we’re at the start of a story.

In the most simplistic terms, we can say that the difference between “I wanted some tea and got some” and “I wanted some tea and found out my car was missing” is that in the first case, nothing got in the way of my goal and in the second case something did.  Similarly, the difference between story and not-story is that something gets in the way. We call that something the conflict.

The Relationship Between Character Goals and Conflict

When you’re trying to suss out a conflict problem in a manuscript, you may have trouble because outside of the most formulaic of approaches, conflict doesn’t show up in just one particular way in a manuscript. So the easier way to get at conflict problems is to look at goal-motivation: What does the protagonist want, why do they want it, what’s getting in their way? Often authors make it too easy on their protagonists and nothing much gets in their way, or they give the protagonist a kind of negative goal (“don’t let anything change”) which is hard to translate into actions that the protagonist can take and that would drive the plot.

Conflict isn’t “what the character wants” it’s “what’s getting in the character’s way?” What the character does in response drives the action of the story.

Often you can find the conflict or problems with it in the synopsis, if the author provides one. If not, sometimes writing one yourself is very revealing. In a synopsis, you briefly describe the main characters, what their situation is, and what drives any change in either the characters and their situation.

So, riffing on that, you can often see that characters want certain things, or seem to want certain things, but the author either isn’t making it difficult enough or doesn’t make the character(s) want it enough. We end up with a college student who enjoys art classes but her parents want her to be an engineer, and she guesses that’s okay, although she does have a couple of fellow students who aren’t that nice to her and she’s struggling a little with time management.

NO. She has to be passionate about art (or, for a nice twist, engineering). She has to persevere despite her parents threatening to pull their funding, and even though the senior professor in her major thinks only men can make truly great art, and her best friend stole her idea for the final project and is doing it better than she could.

Your author might have set up the first situation but the second one is not that far-fetched from it, right? And seeing that the author would have a much better idea of how to amp up the conflict, even if they didn’t take your exact advice.

Notice that the conflicts are with people important to the protagonist—the senior professor in her major, not the grad student she can easily go around. The best friend, not some random jerk. It’s maddening to deal with a random jerk but it’s heartbreaking for your best friend to betray you.

Conflict Questions

To determine if a problem with conflict is at the heart of your author’s overall problems, ask yourself these questions:

  1. What is the story’s central conflict? Remember to look for goal-motivation if you’re having trouble spotting this.
    1. What are the inner (internal, maybe unacknowledged and unspoken) goals and the outer (external, stated) goals of each main character?
    2. What are the motivations of these characters? Why do they want their goals?
  2. How does the conflict play out in the storyline? That is, what do the characters do to get their goals, or to stop someone else from reaching theirs? How do these actions and reaction drive the plot/story events?
  3. How is the conflict resolved?

If you can’t answer these questions with a careful reading of the ms, or the answers seem less than compelling, then a problem with conflict is almost certainly your author’s biggest challenge. Your aim should be to help guide the author in the direction of a more effective conflict.

New! Kick Start Your Editing Business, Edition 2021 (starts January 11, 2021)

$249, 4 weeks (through February 7), instructor-led.

This new class is for freelance editors who have hit a slump or who have been away from the field for a while but want to get back in the game.

Maybe the pandemic has impacted your clientele and you’ve lost the indie clients you’ve relied on, or maybe you’re going through the sophomore slump of keeping your business running while trying to market while trying to maintain a personal life. Maybe you’re ready to change genres or add new services but aren’t sure how to do this without losing your current clients. Or maybe you’d like to make more money or work more efficiently.

We’ll talk about all of these issues throughout the class. Each student will develop a plan for going forward in 2021.

This class includes four weeks of lessons with feedback and online discussion, plus a one-hour coaching call with the instructor (Jennifer) after the end of class to help you solve problems and finalize your game plan.

Lessons cover:

  • building your client base while juggling multiple demands on your time
  • shifting and expanding your services: changing or adding genres you edit, moving or expanding from copyediting to developmental editing (or vice versa)
  • making the most of your time: efficient time blocking/scheduling
  • avoiding no-shows and downtime
  • quoting projects correctly and making more money per client
  • evaluating and implementing efficiency-related practices and tools
  • creating an online (website/blog) and social media strategy for marketing
  • deciding on business-related priorities for the coming year (financial, work-life balance, etc.)
  • working part-time at your business
  • networking virtually
  • overcoming imposter syndrome
  • dealing with perfectionism, resistance, and other self-defeating habits
  • developing a plan to help make 2021 your best year yet

Purchase this class with the February Getting Editorial Work from Book Publishers and Packagers class and save $50! (Choose the Kickstart + Publishers Package)

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How and what to fact check in developmental editing

Fact-Checking in the Editorial Process

Fact-checking is verifying that the information included in a ms is accurate: World War I took place in the early twentieth century, production of Hummers stopped in 2010. An author (even a novelist) who gets facts wrong irritates and alienates readers, so one of our roles as dev editor is to ensure that basic facts are accurate.

For the most part, we’ll just use our common sense: if a fact as presented in the ms doesn’t square with what we know of reality, we’ll double-check it.

However, an author should not expect you to be a subject-matter expert (unless you are a subject-matter expert and you’ve agreed to take on this fact-checking burden).

When fact-checking, you’ll need to set limit on your own behavior—spending two minutes to confirm a fact versus going down a rabbit hole of research for three hours.

Some mss have more room for factual error—historicals, for example, will have many details that could be wrong. But even when we’re editing contemporary novels, we need to do a certain amount of fact-checking so that inaccuracies don’t make it into print.

Our authors rely on us to help make sure they aren’t making mistakes. For the most part this just means using our general knowledge to alert us when something seems unlikely. It doesn’t mean that we suddenly have to become experts on ship-building just because the ms currently on our desks features a ship-building protagonist.

You may feel that setting a rule of doing no fact-checking at all helps solve the problem but that’s evading one of your responsibilities as a developmental editor. It’s quite common for authors to predicate plot events on things that could never happen, at least not how they describe them. (Throwing an iPhone away doesn’t magically end Apple’s ability to produce a call history, to take a recent example I encountered.)

Some fact-checking is required for you to address such implausibilities effectively.

Fact-checking can be a time sink, so we have to manage our time wisely. But we also can’t just be lazy and say, “This doesn’t seem right; please double-check.” (Nothing annoys an author more than to be asked to check something s/he knows is accurate!)

We have to give a specific, defensible reason why we think the author is in error, and usually that requires a little research. So, that is a time commitment we have to factor into the fee we ask for any project. The real skill is in being able to get the answer you need quickly and move on.

Sometimes we make fact-checking more complicated than it is. For example, suppose you’re editing a ms set in the early Middle Ages that references Vikings in Dublin. You don’t have to research the history of Vikings to verify whether Vikings were in Dublin in this time period. A quick Google search of the term “vikings in dublin” tells us there was a Viking settlement there in the ninth century and that the name “Dubh Linn” was first documented in the eighth and ninth centuries. No further investigation is needed to accept that the story’s protagonist could have hired Viking mercenaries in Dublin.

In some types of historicals, strict accuracy is not that important as long as what happens seems like the kind of thing that could happen. For example, a colleague of mine writes historical romance, and in her opinion, as long as the romance is well-written, readers will forgive some stumbles in accuracy as long as there aren’t glaring anachronisms. But that is by no means universally true. For this reason, some historical writers want to work with editors who can help backstop them—they want editors who have significant familiarity with the time period to help them catch errors they have inadvertently overlooked.

There’s a sort of agreed-upon convention that readers will accept one big coincidence in order for a story to get moving (often it’s an inciting incident) but you can’t keep throwing coincidences at them and expect them to believe it. So a reader will believe Mary, running away from a mugger, hops on the train and just happens to collide with her old friend Bob, who is big enough to scare off the mugger. Things like that do happen, so we’ll accept it. But that’s it. Mary can’t also happen to run into her friend Hilda, who recognizes the mugger and goes with Mary to the police station where the detective taking their report happens to know just where the mugger lives . . . .

The same is true of historical fiction: one historical inaccuracy in the service of a story is generally accepted but readers will not accept a whole crop of them. For instance, I recently read an entertaining Revolutionary War-era novel where the heroine takes command of her father’s ship after his death. It’s a pretty unlikely scenario, although it’s something that potentially could have happened, and the author tries to show how the crew’s acceptance of the protagonist’s leadership is possible. But if the author were then to ignore all other gender conventions of the time period, it would stop seeming believable.

I don’t fact-check in the sense of hunting down references for every statement of fact the author makes. But if something strikes me as implausible for the time period, then I will verify my facts before I ask the author to verify hers.

A related consideration is, “Should a DE point out anachronistic phrases and idioms?”

Historical novels aren’t written in the language of the period in which they’re set, so there will always be some anachronistic word usage no matter what. The English that would have been spoken in, say, the Middle Ages would have been a form of Old or Middle English. In any case, probably half of the words used in the ms (if not more) would not have been used at the time. We certainly aren’t going to expect readers to follow along with an historical novel written in Old or Middle English.

So what we want to do is note word choice that jars the reader—that not only is modern but sounds modern. This is true even if the word actually existed during the time period in question.

In some instances, readers will accept a modern-sounding historical novel as long as that is the style of the novel as a whole. Or they will accept an “old” sounding historical novel as long as that is the style of the novel as a whole. What they generally won’t accept is a pastiche—some modern phrasing mixed in with archaic/old phrasings.

Another concern is to be aware of anachronistic concepts—ideas that people in the time and culture would be unlikely to have. Notions of privacy, individual rights, family obligations, and more vary widely in time and place. A character in sixteenth-century China should not be indistinguishable from a twenty-first-century American.

Overall, I recommend setting specific expectations about fact-checking with your client ahead of time.