Tuesday, September 16, 2008


Punctuation marks and misspellings are not the only thing that can trip you up and de-value your writing. Poor vetting erodes the confidence the reader has in your story and can even go so far as to void the suspension of disbelief. Facts, even the “fictional facts” of a novel, must work together to create a story into which your reader can escape. No cognitive dissonance allowed.

Of course, the writer must watch this as the work progresses, but at least one of the final read-throughs needs to focus on questioning and verifying, checking and authenticating. Perhaps “questioning” is the most vital of these…you simply must question everything. Anything not known as confidently as you know your own name must be verified.

Here’s a little laundry list of things:

1. Are all names spelled correctly? Confirm the spelling of actual persons, and make sure that a character’s name is spelled consistently throughout. (Billy vs. Billie, Susie vs. Suzie)

2. Make sure that two characters are not tagged with the same name. (I see this happen often with minor characters.)

3. Verify the spelling of brand names. (It’s PACO RABANNE not POCO RABANE!)

4. Verify real life information to be sure it is hasn’t become outdated. For example, it’s probably no longer a good idea to refer to Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt as a happy couple.

5. Fix incorrect references. If your novel is set in the real Milwaukee, WI, your character must drive south to Chicago, not north. If your characters are on their way to Woodstock, it’s highly unlikely that one of them will yank a cell phone from his Levis pocket.

6. Keep your setting honest. If it’s a desert town, it’s not likely that someone will be chased into the woods. If you write a scene at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, it’s unlikely that there will be snow in the air.

In the search for new projects for my indie press, I have the opportunity to read many manuscripts. I’ve found that the biggest turn-off, the thing I am most unwilling to overlook, is poor vetting. At some primal level, I just get the feeling that, since there is such disregard for fact-checking, there must be serious story flaws that would exhaust my resources and be a stumbling block to a successful book project.

With Google and Wikipedia, checking everything is a snap, so why gamble with the accuracy? Check everything!

Billie Johnson, Publisher
Oak Tree Press
Second Annual Writers Conference Sept 19-21


  1. If you're setting a book in a city or place where you don't currently live, it's probably because you used to live there or you've visited and decided it would be a good place for your mystery/romance/young adult/whatever book.

    In that case, you may know someone who lives there now. If it's someone you trust, have him or her read your book. The friend doesn't have to be an editor. You're not asking her to spot missing commas. Have him look for anything in the setting that doesn't feel right to a native.

  2. There will always be someone who will find any little mistake you make in a book. It's a good idea to check as much out beforehand as possible or you could be very embarrassed.

    Morgan Mandel

  3. One of my clients writes historical fiction. He sends his work in progress to a couple of readers who live in the area he's writing about for them to check his directions, distances, place names, etc. Most people wouldn't know if Town A is ten or twelve miles from Town B, but anyone living there would. And getting it wrong would risk losing those folks as readers—folks who are in his target audience since many people enjoy reading history set in their own neighborhood.

  4. It's also important to remember when naming your characters to give them names that fit with your setting. Especially if you're writing about a real area. For example, the biggest chunk of my work is set in Harlan County, Kentucky. There are names you just won't ever hear there.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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