F Is for Fact-Checking

Fact-checking is much in the news these days — or perhaps it’s the absence of it that’s much in the news.

It used to be, and may still be, that top-quality magazines had fact-checkers whose job was to go through every story accepted for publication and check all the facts. They weren’t responsible for the quality of the prose — just the facts.

Editing — specifically copyediting, which includes excruciating attention to detail — and fact-checking are two distinct tasks, but inevitably they overlap. Imprecise writing can lead to readerly misunderstanding, and those misunderstandings may have to do with facts. A trade publisher I’ve been working for regularly for many years directs copyeditors to check dates, the spelling of names, and anything that can be easily verified as long as it doesn’t add to billable time.

Before the World Wide Web, freelance copyeditors were limited to biographical dictionaries, atlases, specialized reference books, and such. Because these had been subjected to a rigorous editing process, they were reliable, but they were also limited in scope. Print references start going out of date even before they’re published, and the further your interests strayed from white male English-speakers, the harder it was to find any facts, verified or not.

In the Age of Google, you can find almost anything on the Web, but plenty of it hasn’t been subjected to either fact-checking or editing. As you’ve probably learned for yourself, verifying the attribution of a quotation is a particular challenge because misattributions seem to multiply exponentially — giving rise to memes like the classic at left (variations of which have also been attributed to Mark Twain, among others).

Copyeditors generally do our fact-checking on the fly and with the help of a search engine. We develop a sixth sense for determining the reliability of sites we’ve never visited before. (Hint: This often involves the quality of both writing and design. If the copy is riddled with typos and strange punctuation, I’ll move on PDQ. Ditto with any site that uses white type against a dark background.)

We also develop a sixth sense for what facts in a manuscript need to be checked. When starting a new job, I’ll fact-check a few names and dates to get a feel for how careful the author is. If the author seems reliable (as is usually the case in the stuff I work on), I’ll look up anything that smells funny and spot-check facts here and there just for the hell of it.

Ultimately writers are responsible for the accuracy of their facts, but a book-length work of nonfiction involves a myriad of facts, and it’s all too easy to transpose letters in a name or figures in a number and wind up with a goof.

Writers whose work is based on research do plenty of fact-checking while they’re writing. Written sources may contain errors, or contradict each other, or be superseded by later works.

I think the journalists have it hardest. Many of their sources are living people talking about events that have just happened. These informants bring different perspectives to the event, they see it from different angles, some are more observant than others — and some may be deliberately shading or hiding what they know, for reasons they’re unlikely to be upfront about and may even be unaware of. And the journalists are generally working on deadlines that don’t leave time for leisurely fact-checking.

Button: I never believe anything until it's been officially denied.In this age of spin and “fake news” each of us has to do our own fact-checking. Because we rarely have the time or inclination to check every fact, we generally focus on the source, the news outlet: if it’s got a good track record, it’s probably because its reporters, editors, and fact-checkers are on the ball. When they screw up, our faith is shaken. Was this an aberration, or are they going down the tubes?

At least in our wiser moments, good editors and writers know that 100% accuracy is impossible, but that doesn’t stop us from expecting it of ourselves and of those we respect, and from turning on anyone who doesn’t live up to our expectations.

In my weekly newspaper days I quickly learned that if we spelled the name of someone’s child or grandchild wrong, that person would remember it forever. Worse, it could easily become a cornerstone in that person’s conviction that the paper was careless with facts. It’s not hard to understand: misspellings and factual errors are easier to recognize than sloppy sourcing or sloppy writing, and they stick in the mind longer. It’s not fair, but there’s an upside to it: if you’re scrupulously accurate with your easy-to-check facts, your work will be more credible.

And when the liars, spammers, and misrepresenters catch on, we’re all in big trouble.

D Is for Deadline

I was thinking “D is for Dictionary,” but I’m in deadline hell at the moment so Deadline won.

Most editors and writers have mixed feelings about deadlines. We love them when we’ve met them, not least because if this is a paid gig  the check will shortly be in the mail or payment will land in our bank account.

Until then, however, deadlines are swords of Damocles hanging over our heads and dominating our thoughts even when we’re not supposed to be thinking about work.

I’m never more focused than when I’m on deadline. Deadlines make it easier to set priorities: “No, I can’t drop everything and go to lunch. This has to be done by tomorrow.”

Deadlines also make it easier to get out of stuff you don’t want to do anyway. It’s so much easier to say “Sorry, I can’t — deadlines!” than “No, I really don’t want to sit through another three-hour meeting where nothing gets done.” (I hope I didn’t blow my, or your, cover with that one.)

My years working for a weekly newspaper taught me a lot about deadlines. Web-based publications may have rolling deadlines, but print is less flexible. During much of my time at the paper it was not flexible at all: “the boards” from which the paper was printed had to be on a certain boat or a certain plane to make their rendezvous with the printer’s representative on the other side of Vineyard Sound. (Living on an island does complicate things somewhat.) The adrenaline surge on Wednesday afternoon was exhilarating, especially if a story broke late: the reporter might be typing furiously at 3 p.m. while Production rearranged pages to make room for new copy.

Don’t be like this. Please.

As an editor, I learned just how annoying it can be when writers blow off deadlines without advance warning, or turn in copy that’s longer, shorter, or sloppier than expected.

Being a fairly slow writer, I learned to appreciate my colleague whose copy might be sloppy but who could crank out anything if it was needed to fill a gap, maybe because an ad was cancelled or a story pulled or another writer didn’t make his or her deadline.  I could clean up sloppy copy much faster than I could turn out something that didn’t need editing.

Sometimes an impending newspaper deadline made me buckle down and write something that I would cheerfully have given up on under any other circumstances. Once I had to review a local production of Samuel Beckett’s play Happy Days.  The acting was fine, but I had no idea what the play was about — and this was before the digital age, when an hour or so online would have given me enough background to BS semi-intelligently about Beckett.

So in desperation I transcribed and embellished the notes I’d taken during the play, which were sort of a stream-of-consciousness attempt to make sense of what I was seeing. Then I knocked them into paragraphs and called it a review. After the review appeared in print, the actress who’d played Winnie told me that she thought I really “got” what the play was about. Go figure. Maybe the desperation born of deadlines can make you smarter than you think you are.

For me the biggest challenge is having no deadline at all. Projects without deadlines tend to get pushed down the priority list again and again. How to keep going when your own enthusiasm flags or you hit a roadblock that you can’t see around?

No one’s waiting for my novel in progress, but two mini-deadlines keep me going. One is to write “every damn day.” (That blog post is about what happened when I let work deadlines take too much precedence over my own writing. It wasn’t pretty, but I know what to do when I get into that kind of trouble.) The other is my writers’ group, the Sunday Writers, which meets (you guessed it) every Sunday evening. All of us bring pages to nearly every meeting, and many’s the time that deadline has made me keep writing or revising till I had something coherent enough to bring to group.

My First Meme

I just created my first meme, and wouldn’t you know it’s about the power of words?

press-meme

I’ve been itching to do this for some time, but my graphics ability is minimal so I procrastinated.

Then the other day I read New York Times columnist Charles Blow’s “Trump, Archenemy of Truth,” about the current U.S. administration’s relationship with the press. The whole column was good, but the next to line deserved to be on a banner or a T-shirt or something.

So with the help of a free image and Serif PhotoPlus 7 I made my first meme.

Like many another word worker, I’ve been looking for ways to put my skills to use in resisting the current U.S. administration and encouraging the opposition. On a less political note, some of Sturgis’s Laws might work well as memes.

This was my first, but I don’t think it’ll be my last. (Feel free to download the image and pass it along.)

Just the Facts

Several of my current or recent jobs involve a fair amount of fact-checking, so I’m feeling both heroic about the errors and inconsistencies I’ve caught and anxious about the ones I know for absolute sure I’m missing.

You know how it goes: You’re reading along in a pretty good book and you screech to a halt at something that’s flat-out wrong. Not a typo or a misplaced modifier or a grammatical goof: a genuine error of fact. Maybe you know the right answer because it’s about your hometown, the car you drive, a subject you’ve been studying for years, or the work you do for a living.

“Where was the editor?” you cry. “Any idiot knows that’s not right.”

The editor and the proofreader would probably be mortified to learn that this error had slipped through. The more significant the error, the more mortified they’d be. At the same time, it’s ultimately the author’s job to get it right, so let’s not be blaming it all on the poor editor — not least because the reader of a published book has no way of knowing how many errors and inconsistencies the editor and proofreader caught.

Pick up a good book, fiction or nonfiction, and read a few pages. Notice how many matters of fact there are, how many opportunities there are to get something wrong or not quite right?

As an editor I don’t do the kind of rigorous fact-checking done by good journalists and others, where everything that isn’t common knowledge (like the law of gravity) has to be confirmed by at least two independent sources. “Fact-checking” is a task in its own right. It overlaps copyediting, but it’s not the same.

I do routinely check the spellings of place and personal names, especially when I’m not familiar with them. I’m currently editing a book about an eminent classical musician of the last century. This isn’t a field I know well, so I’m looking almost everything up. This is how I learned that Goosens was supposed to be Goossens and something else: that three successive generations of this musical family included a Eugene. The elder two spelled their first name Eugène but the youngest had dropped the accent. I couldn’t tell for sure which Eugene/Eugène Goossens was being referred to, so I asked the author. The youngest, she informed me. “Eugene” it was.

I’m also proofreading a long nonfiction book with many, many names, dates, and other details. This is a “cold read,” which means that though I do have access to the copyedited manuscript, I am not reading the proofs against it. When a book’s been competently edited and copyedited, errors and inconsistencies are generally few and relatively minor, but they are there. I was quite pleased with myself when I realized that a fellow who was survived by eight children when he died on September 13 had been the father of nine on September 9.

What did I do next? From context I knew that there was virtually no chance that a child had died between the 9th and the 13th; in other words, this was an error. Because  this fellow was not famous and the number of children he had was irrelevant to the story, I didn’t even think to look it up. (Fact-checking in the digital age can be a terrible time sink. There are a helluva lot of fascinating facts out there.) I noted the discrepancy on the proofs and left it to the author to deal with.

Reading the same proofs, I came to a sentence that ended with a series of organization names: “the House of Representatives, the New York Urban League, the National Legal Aid, the Defender Association, and the Buffalo Council of Churches.” “The National Legal Aid” looked odd. What was the “the” doing there? So I looked it up — and discovered that “the National Legal Aid” and “the Defender Association” were not two organizations but one: the National Legal Aid and Defender Association (NLADA). Which of course I had to read up on — see what I mean about time sinks?

This is what’s known in the trade as a “good catch.” I’m still feeling a little smug about it.

How about when an error goes beyond an easily verifiable fact? Some things we catch because we have knowledge of the subject matter. Editors bring their personal histories as well as their editorial experience to each new job, so we’ll catch things in the areas we know well and speed on by things in areas we don’t.

Checking street maps to make sure a driver can make a left turn from Street A onto Avenue B? Verifying appropriate technology in a historical novel, or customs in a place far from home? Basically it’s the author’s job to get this stuff right. When the editor, copyeditor, or proofreader catches an impossibility, an anachronism, or a cultural improbability, it’s great, but editors are not fact-checkers and we’re usually working on deadline.

An obvious gaffe can undermine a book’s credibility. Competent editing and proofreading will greatly reduce the number of errors, inconsistencies, and unclarities that slip through, but in this, as in everything else, perfection is not possible.

If you’re the writer, however, it’s your name in the byline or on the book cover. There’s a reason for that. You’re the one with the most power to get the facts right.

Do I Own My Story? But What If It’s Also Your Story, and You Don’t Want Me To Tell It?

A thoughtful discussion of a crucial issue for most of us who write nonfiction about real people. Read the comments too.

Having come up through the feminist movement, written for feminist publications, and worked in a feminist bookstore, I know how important it is to tell our stories. If we don’t, our stories don’t get told. Taking their place in the public arena are stories about us told by others. At best these are incomplete; at their all too common worst, they’re self-interested distortions and outright lies.

At the same time, writing confers power, especially when it comes with access to a large audience. Some glibly say “Let the people I’m writing about tell their own stories,” ignoring that those people usually don’t have our skill, our will, or our access to print. This goes for journalists as well as memoirists, personal-essayists, and all of us whose writing involves real places and people. These are big questions, and they deserve better than glib, self-serving answers.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

zz hertzel Laurie Hertzel

By Laurie Hertzel

Like any good student, I sat in the front row, took diligent notes, and believed, for a while, everything my teachers said. As a young newspaper reporter, I had ambitions beyond daily journalism, so for years I attended as many workshops and seminars as possible, studying narrative writing, fiction, and, eventually, memoir.

“I own my story,” I obediently jotted during a memoir lecture—or words to that effect. “No one has the right to tell me what I can or can’t write.”

But when I began working on my first memoir, I realized that it’s not that simple. Yes, I own my story—that is, I have the right to tell the stories of my life.  But I don’t live in a vacuum, and in order to tell my stories I cannot help but tell the stories of others. Do I have that right? Do I have the…

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Sturgis’s Law #2

Earlier this month I started an occasional series devoted to Sturgis’s Laws. “Sturgis” is me. The “Laws” aren’t Rules That Must Be Obeyed. Gods forbid, we writers and editors have enough of those circling in our heads and ready to pounce at any moment. These laws are more like hypotheses based on my observations over the years. They’re mostly about writing and editing. None of them can be proven, but they do come in handy from time to time. Here’s #2:

Given enough time to fill, even the most intelligent commentator will wind up making stupid statements.

When I was growing up, we had the news at 6 and the news at 10 (or 11), and it didn’t last more than an hour. On Sunday we had talking-head shows like Meet the Press. They didn’t last more than an hour either.

With the advent of cable TV came channels that delivered news and commentary 24/7. The quantity increased, but not the quality. Blather is cheap. Investigation and analysis are hard. There’s good stuff out there for sure, but you have to wade through a flood of drivel to find it.

Print journalism, like print in general, imposes limits. The space available is finite and the words have to fit into it. In my newspaper days, ads would often come in or be cancelled at the last minute. I’d have to cut a story on the fly to make room or figure out how to fill the hole. I learned, among other things, that no matter how well-written and well-edited a story was, I could nearly always cut two or three or four column inches out of it without doing serious harm.

sufferedThe web doesn’t impose space limits. Bloggers and others writing for the web could theoretically go on forever — but we don’t. Paradoxically perhaps, when it comes to the web the standard advice is “keep it short.” We could go on forever, but most readers won’t stick with us that long. There are limits, but they aren’t spatial.

We writers like to kick against the restrictions imposed on us by circumstance and by (you’re way ahead of me) editors, but restrictions are often a good thing. Think about it.

Tasks with deadlines usually get done before tasks without.

Cutting a 3,000-word draft to fit a 1,000-word limit often sharpens the focus and tightens the prose.

Poets make every word count because they have to. Not only do poems usually have fewer words than stories and essays (even flash fiction and nonfiction), they’re also shaped by the limitations of rhyme, rhythm, and/or meter.

Early drafts can sprawl. Sprawling is good — it sure beats being blocked. But it’s revising and editing that make the piece, whether poetry or prose, by shaping and focusing — by imposing limits.

deadline miracle

What Makes a Real Writer?

Stacey, who follows Write Through It and blogs at Diary of a Ragamuffin, posed this question: “What makes one a real ‘writer’?”

She added:

My reason for asking:  After 15 years of teaching, I decided to change careers and have begun a job as a reporter for my small-town newspaper (that is owned by a not-so-small-town corporation).  They knew I had no journalism experience when they hired me.  After four  months, I’m beginning to wonder if just anyone could do the job I do.

I’m not sure if what I do each day is what I had hoped it would be.  Often there is not enough time to write reflectively, and when there is, there’s no one qualified to critique it (in my opinion).

The answer is that there’s no answer, but you know I’m not going to stop there, right?

First off, I worked eight years for a small-town newspaper, the Martha’s Vineyard Times, in a succession of overlapping capacities: proofreader, features editor, features writer, theater reviewer, copyeditor. Reporting wasn’t my forte, but I did a little of that, mostly covering stories when no “real” reporter was available.

So I’m here to assure Stacey: The job you do can’t be done by just anyone, or by just any writer either. The fact that you’re wondering probably means that you’re good at it. You’ve got the knack. You learn fast. You’re able to apply your experience in other jobs to your journalism job.

Been there, done that. I wasn’t a journalist either when I got drafted to fill in for an editorial typesetter who was going on sick leave. I was scared to death I’d screw up, but I needed the work. I could type, I could proofread, I could write, and I had several years’ editorial experience. Short version: I loved it, I was good at it, and pretty soon the paper hired me as a part-time proofreader.

The tricky thing about job description “writer” is that it covers so many different kinds of writing. Reporter. Novelist. Columnist. Essayist. Poet. Diarist. Blogger. Biographer. Academic. Copywriter. Technical writer. And so on and on. No writer does all of them. No writer I’ve ever met wants to do all of them.

I know some crackerjack journalists who won’t cop to being writers. In their minds, writers write books, or fiction, or literary criticism. What writers don’t do is write for newspapers. You see the paradox here? If real writers don’t write for newspapers, then the writing in newspapers isn’t real writing.

Of course it is. If it isn’t, what the hell is it?

That's me, long before I knew what an editor was.

That’s me, long before I knew what an editor was.

In my teens and twenties, I assumed that a real writer had to know grammar and punctuation backwards and forwards and be a world-class speller besides. So I developed those skills. It wasn’t until I got a job as an editor in the publications office of a big nonprofit that I realized that in the real world these skills made me an editor. I hadn’t even known what an editor was. Some editorial skills belong in every writer’s toolkit, but you don’t have to be an editor to be a real writer.

Poets & Writers is a venerable organization that publishes a bimonthly magazine of the same name. Doesn’t the name imply that category “poets” isn’t included in category “writers”? It does to me. Plenty of poets either don’t call themselves writers or are semi-apologetic when they do: “I just write poetry. I’m not a real writer.”

Same deal as with journalists: If what poets write isn’t writing, what is it? And if the people who write it aren’t writers, what are they?

About her journalism job Stacey noted: “Often there is not enough time to write reflectively, and when there is, there’s no one qualified to critique it.”

This is true. Journalism means writing to deadlines, and deadlines don’t stand around waiting for the writer to get it perfect.

Deadlines don’t wait for editors either. Accuracy is more important than a perfectly crafted sentence. Spell a kid’s name wrong and her parents and grandparents will remember it forever.

Me, checking the boards at the Martha's Vineyard Times. You can tell it was back in the Pleistocene because the paste-up was pre-digital. October 1993.

Me, checking the boards at the Martha’s Vineyard Times. You can tell it was back in the Pleistocene because the paste-up was pre-digital. October 1993.

Working for the newspaper made me a better writer and a better editor in more ways than I can count. I learned I could write and edit with phones ringing off the hook and people bringing me press releases 12 hours after deadline. I learned that endings don’t have to be perfect because the last two or three inches of a story would often be lopped off when a late ad came in. I learned that writers who can turn out prose like yard goods may write sloppy sentences but they sure come in handy when a scheduled story doesn’t show or an ad gets pulled. I learned that in the work of novice writers the lead paragraph is often buried a third of the way down. I learned that I can turn out a coherent theater review even when I haven’t a clue what the play was about. (It was Beckett’s Happy Days, in case you’re wondering.)

I learned that “good enough” often is good enough, and it’s actually pretty damn good, though for sure you could do better at a writers’ retreat. For a congenital perfectionist like me this was huge.

So what makes someone a “real writer”?

Marge Piercy nailed it in “For the Young Who Want To”:

The real writer is one
who really writes. Talent
is an invention like phlogiston
after the fact of fire.
Work is its own cure. You have to
like it better than being loved.

 

That’s the last verse. Read the whole thing. Read it often. You don’t have to be young.