By Nancy M. Bell

Accuracy by definition is the quality or state of being correct or precise, or in a technical sense, the degree to which the result of a measurement, calculation, or specification conforms to the correct value or a standard. Both of these aspects can and should be applied to your work as an author. For simplicity I have broken it down into two parts.

  1. The importance of the accuracy of the information in the story you are telling.
  2. The technical aspect of your work i.e. spelling (and don’t rely on spell check), grammar, formatting, bibliography etc.

The first aspect is also broken down into two categories:

  • Fiction which would include poetry and some memoir depending on how close you stick to the truth.
  • Nonfiction which also includes technical manuals, text books as well as nonfiction novels, novellas, memoirs, magazine articles and probably many others that have escaped me at the moment.

Fiction

Even though your story is an invention of your imagination, it must stay true to real life. Or true to the world you have created in the case of Sci-Fi, High Sci-Fi, Fantasy and High Fantasy. What this means is if your story is set in Calgary or Toronto or Tokyo, unless you are dealing with a post-apocalyptic world, physical landmarks should be taken into account.

For example, don’t move Toronto from the shores of Lake Ontario to Lake Erie. Likewise, when dealing with a sport, be sure you know the rules and stick to them.

Consider:

I can still remember a novel from a big name publisher many years ago where there was a professional hockey player as the MC. This book had been edited by professional editors working for a huge house. Yet, the game was divided into four quarters rather than three periods. At the start of the game the players skated out with red roses (of course they were red) and handed them to ladies in the stands- totally ignoring the fact that even back then there was glass separating the players and ice surface from the fans. This was a ploy to make the female MC jealous but it fell flat because of the inaccuracies.

In another instance in a different book, the female MC has a horse who develops the ‘flu’, while the flu in humans may be uncomfortable it rarely causes death. For a horse, the flu can mean the end of a horse’s usefulness and result in death. It is a big deal, a horse with a cough is always a cause for huge concern. In this book, the horse was sick for a couple of days (long enough to cause the MC some distress) and then got a shot and miraculously recovered in a day. My point in relaying these bits of trivia is that even after 20 + years I still remember these inaccuracies. None of us want to be that author.

The Specifics

Research is tied irrevocably to accuracy. It’s fine to write about something you aren’t an expert in, but realize at the outset that it will involve a lot of research in order to be sure your final draft is as accurate as possible.

For location, as long as you keep to the well-known landmarks it is perfectly okay to add in fictional ones as long as they are not jarring to the reader or the flow and are harmonious with the actual location.

Writing about a religion you are unfamiliar with can be very interesting as well as very challenging. We tend to write from our own world view, and we fall into behavior patterns with our characters which are natural to us. However, you always have to be cognizant of the fact this may be in conflict with how a person of another religion or culture would react to the same situation or conflict.

Looking on the web is good resource but for matters of religion and culture it is very helpful to speak with a person or persons who live that reality. This can be a very touchy area and the last thing you want to do as an author is insult or offend any segment of the reading public.

Nonfiction

For nonfiction, you not only have to be accurate in your information, you also need to compile a bibliography and a list of your other sources outside of books. This includes websites, magazines, technical papers and etc.

  • For technical writings accuracy is even more important. Work and facts must be checked and double checked and all sources cited in detail.
  • Memoirs/biography, and autobiography can be tricky. Technically, these are classed as nonfiction, however although they are based on stories and situations that actually occurred, the author may (or may not) employ a certain amount of literary license. Events may be omitted or ‘cleaned up’ to portray people or events in a way the author deems more acceptable than what may have really happened. Bits and pieces may be added or embellished or deleted to suit the message the author wishes to impart. For accuracy’s sake, the bare bones must be left intact or you stray more into the realm of fiction than nonfiction.

Common Technical Matters…Fiction & Nonfiction

Measurements and technical data within a fiction genre must be accurate. If you are speaking in kilometers or miles, know how many feet or centimeters are involved. Know what measurements are used in the location you are writing in. Imperial or metric.

Consider:

In Canada distance would be in kilometers after the date the country went metric, if you are writing in the pre-metric era you would need to use imperial measures and distances. For the US, it is still gallons, inches, ounces, miles etc. Also, you would need to address the difference in the Canadian gallon and the US gallon if it comes up in your work.

For sports or topics that employ special measurements you need to know how they compare to measurements your reader might be more familiar with.

For example, horse racing talks about furlongs- and the eighth pole on the race course. A furlong is an eighth of a mile and the eighth poles are markers for a jockey or observer to gauge the horse’s speed. There are turf courses and dirt courses in TB racing, steeple chasing is run on grass. Standard breads can be pacers or trotters and the gait is different, TB race at a gallop.

The same can be said for sailing or novels in a nautical setting, you would need to know what constitutes a ‘knot’ and what distance a ‘league’ is. You understand what I’m getting at here, of course.

Writing Techniques

Grammar. Whatever source you want to use— Strunk and White, Chicago Manual of Style etc, stick with the one that works for you. Some publishing houses prefer one over the other so if you’re thinking of targeting a specific house do some investigating and use what they recommend. Whatever you use, make sure you check and double check your final draft. Have someone else read it over looking for grammar errors, not just reading the story

Spelling– this can be a dilemma for Canadian, British and Australian authors. What version of spelling do you use? Rule of thumb is—use the version that is common in the country where your story is set. However, if you are planning on submitting to one of the big US houses, it might be wise to use American spellings. I have had Australian authors declare they will not “Americanize” their books. They want to keep the idioms particular their country and frankly I agree with that line of thought. I like my u in colour etc.

Further, Do not rely on Spell Check to save you. It will miss a word that is mis-used in context because it is spelled correctly, but that will reflect on you as an author. So it’s your job to make sure that doesn’t happen. Certainly use Spell Check as a preliminary tool, but then use your own eyes to check for spelling, missing words etc. Then get another person with fresh eyes to also look for spelling errors.

Formatting. This is a biggie. When you are ready to submit your final copy, whether you plan to self-publish or submit to a house, you need to know what the formatting requirements are. For self-publishing whichever platform you choose to go with, there will be strict formatting requirements so that your manuscript can be formatted into print version and then all the different digital formats for the various electronic readers available.

Each publishing house will list their format requirements on their website or in their call for submissions. Follow those instructions to the letter. Often, because a house may receive hundreds of submissions in a day, even the smallest error can shift your submission to the reject pile without them even reading a word.

Submissions, unless requested from a proposal or query,  go into the ‘slush pile’ and are usually read by an intern or very junior editor. They see literally thousands of manuscripts and even what the author may perceive as non-significant errors can result in the slush reader tossing it aside in favor of authors who have followed the guidelines. Another reason for this is an author who doesn’t pay attention to following the guidelines may not be an easy author to work with on edits in the event the manuscript makes it that far.

Bibliography, References, Citations, Indexes, etc. All of these items are important if required by your manuscript. It is important that they are set up according to accepted formats. There are examples all over the internet and templates you can adapt to your needs.

Prologues vs Forwards vs Prefaces

Know the difference and don’t confuse them.

Prologue-a separate introductory section of a literary or musical work. A part that comes at the beginning of a play, story, or long poem, often giving information about events that happened before the time when the play, story, or poem begins

Forward- A foreword is a (usually short) piece of writing sometimes placed at the beginning of a book or other piece of literature. Typically written by someone other than the primary author of the work, it often tells of some interaction between the writer of the foreword and the book’s primary author or the story the book tells. Later editions of a book sometimes have a new foreword prepended (appearing before an older foreword if there was one), which might explain in what respects that edition differs from previous ones.

When written by the author, the foreword may cover the story of how the book came into being or how the idea for the book was developed, and may include thanks and acknowledgments to people who were helpful to the author during the time of writing. Unlike a preface a foreword is always signed.

The pages containing the foreword and preface (and other front matter) are typically not numbered as part of the main work, which usually uses Arabic numerals. If the front matter is paginated, it uses lowercase Roman numerals. If there is both a foreword and a preface, the foreword appears first; both appear before the introduction, which may be paginated either with the front matter or the main text.

Preface– A preface, or proem, is an introduction to a book or other literary work written by the work’s author. An introductory essay written by a different person is a foreword and precedes an author’s preface. The preface often closes with acknowledgments of those who assisted in the literary work.

A preface generally covers the story of how the book came into being, or how the idea for the book was developed; this is often followed by thanks and acknowledgments to people who were helpful to the author during the time of writing.

A preface is usually signed (and the date and place of writing often follow the typeset signature); a foreword by another person is always signed. Information essential to the main text is generally placed in a set of explanatory notes, or perhaps in an “Introduction” that may be paginated with Arabic numerals, rather than in the preface. The term preface can also mean any preliminary or introductory statement. It is sometimes abbreviated pref.

Ed. note: Nancy is the author of several books, poems, short stories and tirelessly works helping writers refine their craft. You can connect with her here, http://www.nancymbell.ca

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