How Much Fact-Checking?

A question that regularly crops up when editors talk among themselves is, How much fact-checking, if any, should I be doing as I edit? I’m going to address this primarily from the perspective of a copyeditor, since that is the role where most checking might be expected.

First, what does a copyeditor do? Beginning editors are often taught that copyediting is about the C’s: consistency, clarity, and correctness (and sometimes coherency and completeness). Editors Canada includes an A as well: accuracy. It’s in correctness and accuracy that there is the most overlap between copyediting and fact-checking, and it’s where an editor may stray in one direction or the other—too much or too little checking.

Correctness in copyediting usually refers to grammar, punctuation, spelling, and usage. Checking or at least querying the spelling of proper nouns—the names of people, places, and organizations—is sometimes a point of contention among editors, with some declaring that this task ventures too far into fact-checking. Checking spelling of names is, however, standard practice in copyediting, as taught by the leading experts in the profession and expected by most publishers. There is one exception: the copyeditor does not usually verify the spelling of names in citations and references, and checks only that the spelling is consistent within the document. It is the author’s responsibility to ensure that names in citations and references are correct.

How far to ensure accuracy causes more furor in editorial forums. It’s almost universally accepted that a copyeditor will check for internal accuracy, for example, to fix or query simple math errors, errors in unit conversions, or conflicting chronology in a timeline. But Editors Canada’s standards, recognized around the world as a leading authority on editorial practice, state that the copyeditor should use basic fact-checking tools to correct or query factual inaccuracies in general information. This doesn’t mean that the editor must look up every detail in the whole document; rather, it means that the editor uses their general knowledge to spot possible inaccuracies, such as in a description of a historical event, and looks them up, if need be, in reputable sources. Obviously, the editor should use discretion in how much time they spend doing this—it’s possible to waste hours hunting for the most accurate information. For anything needing more than a few minutes of research, the editor should briefly state the problem and ask the author to ensure the information is accurate.

Sample Copyedits: Yes or No?

A recurring debate among copyeditors is whether to do sample edits for prospective clients. Some editors never do them; others (like me) almost always do. Some charge a fee for the sample; others (like me) do them for free.

The sample serves several purposes:

  • It shows the client my approach and how I can improve the document.
  • It helps me assess what level of editing (light, medium, or heavy) the document needs.
  • It helps me estimate how much time the whole project will take, and thus how much it will cost and what the schedule will be.
  • It helps me determine the scope of work, which is very important both for estimating and for ensuring the project stays on schedule and on budget.
  • It helps me decide whether I’m the right editor for the project or whether I should refer to the client to another editor (for example, this sometimes happens with highly technical documents that need an editor with subject-matter expertise).

For a sample, I take a chunk of text, about 1000–1500 words, from the document. I copyedit it and add queries and comments just as I would for a real edit. The edited sample becomes part of the project proposal, along with the estimated fee, schedule, and scope of work.

Avoiding Plagiarism

Plagiarism is popping up in the news again, and it makes regular appearances in discussions on editors’ forums. But there is often confusion as to what constitutes plagiarism. Simply put, plagiarism is making someone else’s writing appear to be your own. It’s not enough just to name the source; text that is directly quoted must appear in quotation marks (with a source citation, of course). Text that’s not inside quotation marks must be thoroughly paraphrased, and if it describes someone else’s original idea, the source should be credited. Changing a few words is not proper paraphrasing; the borrowed text must differ from the source throughout, not only in vocabulary but also in structure.


  • When doing research, as soon as you open a source (book, article, website) copy the publication information into your notes:
    • book: author, title, publisher and location, date
    • article: author, title, journal, date, volume, issue, and page numbers; URL or DOI
    • website: author (if applicable), website name, organization, URL
  • Keep your notes organized so that the source of each bit of information is clear.
  • If you paste direct quotes into your notes, clearly mark them as quotes—put them in quotation marks, and perhaps make them a different font colour or put them in a box. Make sure that later you’ll easily be able to tell what is a direct quote and what are your own notes and thoughts, and where each quote came from, including specific page numbers. In my own research, my notes start out almost entirely as identifiable quotes; later, after I’ve done more reading and mulled over the ideas, I paraphrase them and add my own thoughts.
  • When you come to write the document, decide if you want to use a few direct quotes: usually a sentence or so that expresses an idea particularly well or in a distinctive way that you want to share with your readers. Use direct quotes sparingly, and double-check that each one is correctly credited. Ensure that you properly paraphrase anything not appearing in quotation marks, changing not only the words but the structure of the passage, such as the order in which ideas are presented and the syntax of each sentence.
  • Always cite your sources. Even if you’ve carefully and thoroughly paraphrased, give credit for the ideas that aren’t your own. If it’s important that your document show original thinking on your part, let it be your insight into the topic gained through gathering, analyzing, and synthesizing ideas from various named sources. As a bonus, citing sources shows that you’re keeping up with the experts in your field.  

Creating Tables

A table is a set of intersecting columns and rows showing data according to well-defined categories. The purpose of a table is to reveal relationships within the data.

Below are some guidelines on creating tables. The focus here is on organizing the content rather than the graphic design (colours, lines, spacing, etc.). These guidelines are for numerical data, but many of the same principles apply to tables containing text or text and numbers combined.

As with most kinds of communication, form follows function: how you organize the table depends on the purpose and meaning of the content.

The Big Picture

  • Use a table when you need to present precise data to make your point. If a general trend is all that you need to show, use a line graph; to show broad comparisons in data that varies greatly, use a bar chart.
  • Experiment with different categorizations to come up with the structure that best brings out the connections among the data points. Look for themes and patterns, and consider how these can be represented in a table’s two dimensions.
  • Keep in mind your purpose as the writer: What point are you trying to make? What should the reader learn from the table?

Arranging Columns and Rows

Once you’ve decided on the categories, there are a few conventions to setting up the table:

  • The points of comparison are placed in the column heads, and the items being compared are placed in the stub entries. For statistical cross-tabulations, the independent variables are the column heads, and the dependent variables are the stub entries.
  • Put the columns in a logical order, such as left to right chronologically or in decreasing order of importance. Use alphabetical order if no other sequence emerges from the data.
  • Group similar or related stub entries together; don’t list them randomly or even alphabetically if there’s a more meaningful way of arranging them. Consider grouping rows with subentries under stub entries.
  • If you don’t group the stub entries, sort them so that the values in the most important column range from highest at the top to lowest at the bottom. The columns could also be sequenced with high to low values left to right—overall, the values will descend diagonally from top left to bottom right.
  • There may be conventions that govern how tables are presented in your subject area. Look for examples from reputable, well-written sources to guide you. For instance, in the sample table above, the provinces are listed west to east, as is commonly done in geography.

The Data

  • Include totals, averages, or percentages only if these are meaningful and useful to your purpose.
  • Round off numbers to make them easy to read and compare, but not so much that their significance is lost.
  • Keep the number of significant digits and decimal places consistent in each cell, except for occasional outlier values (as in the Ontario and Quebec rows in the table above).
  • Use footnotes to briefly explain terminology, discrepancies, and special cases (for example, to note where data was drawn from an unusually small sample).

Title and Headings

  • Number the tables if your document has more than one. Make sure the numbering corresponds to the order in which they are mentioned in the text.
  • Give each table a title. It should precisely and concisely describe what the table shows. Don’t interpret the data in the title; do this in the main text or in a caption.
  • Keep column headings and stub entries brief but descriptive.
  • Use a spanner heading if you find that the same information is repeated in several column headings. This can also help in making the table more organized.
  • Don’t use more than two spanner headings—too many layers of headings make the table harder to read.

Stylistic Polish: Sentence Rhythm

Good writing is not only grammatical and clear; each sentence has a lively rhythm that draws readers along and keeps them interested.

We saw in a previous post how to fix a common problem of parallelism in a series. The original, incorrect sentence was

Thyme is low growing, fragrant, and has small purple-pink flowers.

This mistake can be fixed in several ways. First, we can keep the series by using a linking verb (is or has) for each item.

Thyme is low growing, is fragrant, and has small purple-pink flowers.

The sentence is now grammatically correct but awkward and wordy; because is conveys little meaning of its own, its overuse leads to weak, dull writing. Here, it only connects the adjectives (low growing, fragrant) to the noun (thyme).

We can try recasting the sentence without a parallel series.

Thyme is low growing and fragrant, and it has small purple-pink flowers.

A bit better—but now we have a clunky compound sentence without the flow and rhythm intended in the original. We can restore a graceful rhythm by making the adjectives directly modify the noun in an appositive phrase.

Thyme, low growing and fragrant, has small purple-pink flowers.

Even better is a more active verb (bears) and more information to round off and balance the sentence.

Thyme, low growing and fragrant, bears small purple-pink flowers in summer.

Punctuation Quick Tips: The Semicolon


The semicolon (;) is to many writers a mysterious squiggle. Some avoid it entirely for fear of using it incorrectly, while others tentatively try it out without really understanding its purpose. Writers and editors talking about the semicolon use words like rhythmic, elegant, lyrical, and subtle. It’s powerful punctuation, to be sure, but what’s it for?

Some of the confusion about the semicolon arises from its form: Is it a kind of comma? A variation on the colon? Despite its appearance, it’s neither of these. Functionally, the semicolon is most closely related to the period. It creates a pause, but not a full stop, between independent clauses (complete sentences). Editor Merrill Perlman says using a semicolon is “like rolling through a stop sign, where you are aware of slowing, but are still moving forward.”

Use a semicolon to show a close connection between ideas:

A carbon tax can be revenue neutral. It can be offset by cuts in personal income taxes.

A carbon tax can be revenue neutral; it can be offset by cuts in personal income taxes.

The semicolon creates a smoother flow, and the repetition (can be) becomes rhythmic rather than wooden.

Unlike the comma, the semicolon isn’t followed by a conjunction (and, or, but, for, nor, yet, so).

A semicolon can emphasize a rhetorical pattern used to develop an argument or make a point; it can show cause and effect, comparison, contrast, or other patterns. I like to use a semicolon as the pivot point or fulcrum of the argument: there’s balance but also movement, tension and resolution, a turning point, and sometimes a surprise.

With increasing industrialization, carbon and other greenhouse gases have accumulated in the atmosphere; the earth is warming rapidly.

The externalized costs of air pollution often turn up in increased health-care expenditures; those of climate change may be seen in billions spent on disaster recovery.

Most of us are aware of the environmental benefits of energy-efficient buildings; less well known are their social benefits.

Use transitional phrases if needed to make the pattern clear:

Relatively few highways in Canada require tolls; as a result, commuters have little incentive to take regional transit.

Changes in climate will shift agricultural zones northward; similarly, animals may migrate northward or to higher elevations.

There are limits to what can be achieved through regulation; carbon pricing, however, is the surest means of reducing emissions.

In a long complex sentence bursting with subordinate clauses and prepositional phrases, a semicolon can help the reader catch a quick rest and reorient themselves before moving on. Essayist Lewis Thomas likens the semicolon to a bench part way up a steep path:

Although the science of anthropogenic climate change is well established and the predicted effects are beginning to be observed, there are those, who, usually for ideological reasons, do not accept its premises and dispute its findings; perhaps more than anything else, this relatively small but powerful faction has prevented real progress in cutting GHG emissions.

Semicolons are also used to separate list items that contain commas:

Carbon sequestration can happen through natural biological, chemical, or physical processes;  agricultural practices that return carbon to the soil; and chemical technologies that capture carbon from the atmosphere and store it indefinitely.

Take note, however, of a caution from the style guide of The Economist regarding semicolons: “Don’t overdo them.”