One of the first rules students are taught in reporting classes at a journalism school is spelling people’s name’s correctly in news stories, feature stories, and editorials. Misspelling a person’s name is not only a rude discount, it undermines your credibility, the thought being that if you can’t even get the name right, how can readers trust you to get anything else right?
Used to be a copyeditor would catch a lot of the misspelt names. Now, reporters and writers are expected to catch their own mistakes because copyediting has become a lost art as organizations cut costs. When a reporter covers a story, readers expect him/her to have a basic knowledge of the subject and when that proves not to be true, the story won’t be trusted.
Novelists face the same issues. If you misspell the names of famous people and widely known cities, you’re in trouble. The more obvious the error–to general readers–the more likely it is to be caught. Obscure errors will bring specialists out of the woodwork in editorial reviews even though most Amazon reader reviewers don’t have the background to catch them.
One of my favorite historical novelists got some simple facts wrong in a recent book that brought the wrath of the gods down on his back. I hope he went back and corrected the material for the next edition. If you’re writing a civil war novel and say that the South fired on “Fort Summer” in “Savannah Harbor,” you–and your beta readers or editor–have been somewhat lax.
Personally, I think it’s especially damaging to make an amateurish mistake on the first page of a novel. Here’s what I saw in the opening paragraph of a book by a well-known writer for a major publisher (that should have had editors and fact checkers):
“Eighty-one-year-old Ernie Keene, retired corporal, United States Navy, stood on the misty flight deck of the USS Intrepid and looked out at New Jersey.”
I immediately lost my faith in the accuracy of the book because the rank of corporal is not a navy rank. I wonder: how can an author of a black ops book not know this? How can the publisher’s editorial staff not know this? Presumably, most readers of black ops and other military-style novels would also know this.
This error alone probably won’t sink the book, but it creates a barrier between the readers and the author about the author’s credentials for writing the novel. As with a news story, readers will think, “If you make a mistake like this, you’re probably making bigger mistakes that are harder for a layperson to catch.”
Authors have a luxury older generations didn’t have. Type in the word “corporal” in a search engine, and you know the navy doesn’t have them. Type in a name that can have multiple spellings, and find out which way the famous person you’re writing about spelt it. And then there’s Wikipedia for basic information about a lot of things.
We have to sweat the “small stuff” or our readers will think we didn’t research the big stuff.