Military history writing: tips from a veteran and editor

I love a military history edit. Not only is it a topic I'm really interested in, but it also allows me the opportunity to draw upon my own military experience − I'm well and truly in my comfort zone!

Like any genre, military fiction has its nuances, so I thought I would put together some tips for any aspiring military history writers or editors and proofreaders who find themselves working on a military history manuscript for the first time.

Wars and battles

Wars and battles should be capitalised, e.g. the Cold War, the Battle of Britain. However, when it comes to the First and Second World Wars, there are several options available: World War Two, World War 2, World War II, WWII, WW2 or the Second World War. Some people have strong opinions on which they prefer, so if you are writing for a publisher, check their style guide. If not, it’s your choice, just make sure you stick with the same convention throughout.

Centuries and decades

In a similar vein, when referring to centuries and decades, we have more than one choice, for example 20th century or twentieth century?

When it comes to decades, the distinction is a little more important: the 1990s, the ’90s (remember to check the apostrophe is facing outwards!) or the nineties? As per the Oxford Style Guide, when written out as words, decades refer to the "social, cultural, and political conditions unique to or significant in that decade, while the numerical form is simply the label for the time span."

Names of ships

Standard practice is to italicise the name of the ship, e.g. HMS Victorious. Note that the ‘HMS’ is not in italics. Aircraft names are less common, but the same rule applies, e.g. Memphis Belle.

Formed units

When writing about a formed unit, e.g. squadron, battalion, fleet, etc. always refer to it in the singular. Because these military units are made up of people, the temptation is to write about them in the plural sense.

For example, 'the squadron was preparing to deploy' is correct, rather than 'the squadron were preparing to deploy'.

Military ranks

When referring to a person, military ranks are always capitalised and can be written in full or abbreviated, e.g. Lance Corporal Jones or LCpl Jones. It's always good practice to keep it consistent throughout though. Different nations sometimes have different conventions for abbreviating their ranks. For example, Lieutenant Commander is abbreviated to Lt Cdr in the Royal Navy but LCDR in the US Navy. So always check if you're not sure.

When not used in a title, the rank should be written in full and all lower case, e.g. 'the corporal', just like you would for any other job (the teacher, the nurse, the writer … etc).

A note on gendered language

We know that the military is a predominantly male-dominated environment. However, women have officially served in the UK Armed Forces since the First World War. So, watch out for gender stereotypes that can crop up when talking about personnel. This is particularly relevant when writing about modern history topics where women have been able to carry out most military roles that men can for some time now. For example, is it really necessary to stipulate that you're talking about a female fast-jet pilot if you wouldn’t say male fast-jet pilot?

Common typos

A squadron will be re-formed but a reformed character

Bale out of a plane but bail out someone financially

On the front line but frontline troops

The Officers’ Mess (plural) but the officer’s beret (singular)

Jessica Brown is a copyeditor, proofreader and RAF veteran. Specialising in non-fiction, military history and aviation-related texts, she provides professional editorial support to publishers, independent writers and businesses. You can read her story here.

(Cover photo by British Library on Unsplash)