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 Print references start going out of date even before they’re published, and the further your interests strayed from white male English-speakers, the harder it was to find any facts, verified or not.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.

E Is for Ellipsis

An ellipsis is three dots.

An ellipsis comprises three dots. (See, I have to show that I know how to use “comprise” in what used to be considered the correct manner.)

An ellipsis consists of three dots with spaces between them.

. . .

not

I don’t get feisty about the things some editors get feisty about. I mean, I’m behind the serial comma, but I don’t believe those who don’t use it are trying to destroy the English language, western civilization, or some other cosmic entity. Ellipses, on the other hand . . .

Aside: That wasn’t an ellipsis. Those were suspension points. Read on for clarification.

I get feisty about ellipses. In my mind, for instance, there is no such thing as a “four-dot ellipsis.” An ellipsis comprises three dots. The fourth dot is a period — “full stop” if you’re working in British English (BrE).

Let me back up a bit. When you’re quoting from someone else’s work and you decide to skip some of the original writer’s words, you use an ellipsis to indicate the omission. Say I wanted to quote from the previous paragraph, but I wanted to drop “for instance.” I might write this: “In my mind . . . there is no such thing as a ‘four-dot ellipsis.'”

When would you use a four-dot ellipsisperiod followed by an ellipsis? When what you decide to drop follows a complete sentence. The complete sentence ends with a period, you add the ellipsis, then you carry on with your quotation.

Here I part company with the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS), so if you’re a dedicated follower of Chicago you better clap your hands over your ears. I want my readers to figure out as much as possible about the source of my abridged quote, so I don’t insert a period where there wasn’t one in the original, even if the remnant is a complete sentence. A capital letter signifies where the next complete sentence begins, and that’s enough.

So — suspension points. What are they? Suspension points indicate a trailing off, a suspension. Whatever was going to be said is suspended — it hangs in the air. I like the common convention in American English (AmE) that three dots indicate a trailing off, but a dash indicates an interruption. A while back I wrote about this in “Of Dots and Dashes.” Do note that at that time I either didn’t know or didn’t care about the distinction between ellipses and suspension points. 🙂

B Is for Backmatter

Yeah, both Merriam-Webster’s and American Heritage make it two words, but it’s my blog and they’re not telling me what to do. Hmm. I have this hunch that D is gonna be for Dictionary . . .

As noted in “A Is for Audience,” I started this A-to-Z challenge a little late. B should have been posted on the 3rd, but it’s currently the 5th. I’m backdating this post to the 3rd to make myself look good.

So what’s backmatter (or back matter)? It’s what follows the main text in a published book. With fiction the backmatter is usually short. It might comprise acknowledgments (which sometimes appear in the frontmatter — guess what that is?), the author’s bio, and — a regular feature of one trade publisher for which I edit regularly — “A Note About the Type.” Meaning the history of the typeface the designer chose to set the book in. Print geeks like me love this stuff.

Nonfiction, especially academic nonfiction, is a whole other (excuse my English) matter. In histories, biographies, and any nonfiction that involves any kind of research, the backmatter can make up a quarter or more of the book’s total pages. In a nonfiction work, the backmatter often includes endnotes, bibliographies or reference lists, and indexes. It may include a glossary or an appendix or two.

Citations — meaning especially endnotes, footnotes, and bibliographies — drive grad students, professors, journalists, and others crazy. They especially drive editors crazy, especially when authors have been inconsistent in the formatting or inaccurate in the details. Almost every assertion in an academic work has to be sourced: the author has to tell the reader where it came from, so the reader can, if so inclined, check it out. This sourcing is done in endnotes and footnotes (which aren’t considered backmatter because they aren’t in the back), and then all the works cited in the notes are compiled in a bibliography or reference list.

There are, in other words, good reasons for confusing “backmatter” with “dark matter.”

When I start a copyediting job, it doesn’t take me long to figure out whether the author is careful or careless.  Sometimes I can tell at a glance whether a cited work’s publication info is correct. Other times I have to look it up. If the author is careful, I spot-check the occasional reference and don’t worry too much. If not — I look up a lot, gnashing my teeth all the while.

Asked to provide an estimate for a nonfiction job, some editors will provide an estimate for the main text but then say they’ll charge by the hour for the backmatter. I totally get it. Backmatter words and main-text words are not created equal. Charging by the hour motivates some authors to do more of the heavy lifting themselves instead of expecting the editor to do it.

It’s when I’m editing backmatter that I most appreciate the Chicago Manual of Style or whatever other style guide I’m supposed to be following. Who wants to invent citation style from scratch? Not me. Here is one area where I’m grateful to have “rules” to follow, and I’m happy to follow those rules.

Three Reasons I Could Stop Writing Memoir But Won’t

Here’s an eloquent example of “write what you need to write” (part of a truth I stole from Alice Walker). Your writing will tell you what you need to know, but you have to be willing to listen, and brave enough to follow.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

zz ronitBy Ronit Feinglass Plank

I had been writing fiction and wanted to try nonfiction, so I began with personal essays. I didn’t think memoir was for me; in fact I was deliberately avoiding it. I didn’t see a reason to revisit the facts of my confusing childhood and thought memoir wouldn’t be as challenging as creating a world from scratch and putting characters in it. To tell my own story, the story I knew by heart, seemed almost too easy.

I could not have been more wrong. I was about to discover that looking at something you think you know pretty well with fresh eyes and trying to understand it in a new way is definitely not easy. I did try writing several personal essays but the history of how I grew up kept barging in, taking up more and more space. It seemed part of me really wanted to…

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Sturgis’s Law #9

Some while back 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. As I blog about them, I add them to Sturgis’s Laws on the drop-down from the menu bar.

Guidelines are not godlines.

Is middle school (junior high for us older folk) particularly hazardous to future writers and editors? This seems to be when admonitions to never do this or always do that put down deep roots in our heads.

  • Never split an infinitive
  • Never begin a sentence with a conjunction.
  • Always use a comma before “too” at the end of a sentence.
  • Never end a sentence with a preposition.

Etc.

Plenty of us get the idea that written English is a minefield laid with rules they’ll never remember, let alone understand. When you’re afraid something’s going to blow up in your face, it’s hard to construct a coherent sentence. A whole story or essay? No way.

In the late 1990s, when I started hanging out online with more people who weren’t writers or editors, I often encountered a strange defensiveness from people I hardly knew. They apologized in advance for their posts: “Maybe I’m saying it wrong . . .”

My sig lines at that time identified me as a copyeditor and proofreader. I deleted those words from the sigs I used when communicating with people outside the word trades. And the defensiveness disappeared.

Those of us who work with words for a living eventually realize that language is not a minefield, but plenty of us have got a Thou shalt or Thou shalt not or two embedded in our heads. On the editors’ lists I’m on, it’s not unusual for someone to ask whether it’s really OK to break some “rule” or another. Generally the rule isn’t a rule at all.

English grammar does have its rules, and if you break or ignore them, intentionally or not, you may have a hard time making yourself understood. But many of the “rules” we learn in school aren’t about grammar at all. They’re about style. Style is more flexible than grammar — and grammar isn’t as static as some people think it is.

Sturgis’s Law #9 came about because even working editors sometimes confuse style guidelines with Rules That Must Be Obeyed.

Arbiters of style.

Arbiters of style.

Let me back up a bit. Book publishers, magazines, newspapers, academic disciplines, and businesses generally develop or adopt a style guide to impose some consistency on their publications. For U.S. journalists it’s the Associated Press Stylebook. For trade publishers and university presses it’s usually the Chicago Manual of Style. In the social and behavioral sciences it’s APA Style, developed by the American Psychological Association. And so on.

These style guides do deal in grammar and usage — Chicago has a whole grammar chapter — but much of what they recommend is discretionary. It’s about style. For instance, Associated Press (AP) style generally uses figures for numbers 10 and up; Chicago spells out most numbers up to a hundred. When I start editing a book manuscript, I can tell within a few pages if the author is accustomed to AP style.

I’ve been using Chicago since the 12th edition (it’s now up to the 16th). I can’t say I know it by heart, but Chicago style is my default setting. No way do I want to invent guidelines from scratch for every manuscript I work on, especially when it comes to documentation: the styling of endnotes, footnotes, bibliographies, and reference lists.

Default settings, however, can be changed as need or preference dictates. They really are guidelines, not godlines. Chicago can be useful for any English-language prose writer, but keep in mind that it was developed for scholarly nonfiction and the further you stray from that, the more leeway you should allow in applying its guidelines.

If you use different style guides, or move between American English (AmE) and British English (BrE), you’ll see plenty of variation in things like capitalization, hyphenation, and the punctuation of dialogue. There’s even considerable variation between dictionaries. When I’m working, I’ve usually got Merriam-Webster’s, American Heritage, and Oxford (the UK/World English edition) open in my browser.

Maybe the most important thing to remember about guidelines is that they aren’t landmines waiting to blow up in your face. They’re on your side. They help your words get across to readers the way you want them to. Following guidelines can be like automating routine tasks: it frees your mind to deal with the more important stuff.

They can also help establish your credibility with agents, editors, and readers. There’s nothing wrong with a manuscript that isn’t double-spaced in 12-point type with one-inch margins all around, but a manuscript that is so formatted will enhance your credibility with any publishing pro who sees it for the first time. And the further it deviates from “the usual,” the more likely doubts are to creep into the reader’s mind.

Today’s Lesson: What’s Missing

I’m about to launch into draft #3 of my novel in progress. There’s a silence, an absence, an unknown, at the very heart of it, and dealing with that unknown is my biggest and scariest challenge. This essay, from Brevity‘s Nonfiction Blog, deals with omission in nonfiction, but it got me thinking about how to do what I’m trying to do. P.S. Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, the question can be a handy way to introduce a possibility when you or one of your characters doesn’t know what’s going on.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

Two recently released creative nonfiction anthologies, Creating Nonfiction: Twenty Essays and Interviews with the Writers (Excelsior Editions, 2016) and I’ll Tell You Mine: Thirty Years of Essays from the Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program (University of Chicago Press, 2015) offer a stunning array of  contemporary creative nonfiction writing, and coincidentally both offer candid interviews with the writers about inspirations, challenges faced, and decisions to fully realize these works. Such frank conversations can lead to teachable moments in the classroom. In this two-part blog post, Jeanette Luise Eberhardy and Debbie Hagan not only examine these anthologies, but also lessons to be learned.

z cnPart One By Jeanette Luise Eberhardy

When I teach creative nonfiction writing to art students, they are most interested in two skills: omission and perhapsing. The skill of omission, examined by John McPhee in an essay in the New Yorker (2015), asks the writer to carefully consider what details…

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On Selfish Reading

I’m pretty much self-taught as a writer. As an editor, I had a mentor who taught me to think systematically about the words, sentences, and paragraphs in front of me, how to recognize, diagnose, and fix problems. In my first editorial job, in the publications office of a big nonprofit, I had to clear every manuscript I edited with the person who wrote it. Often these people weren’t professional writers. They didn’t have long experience to fall back on. Some of them were downright touchy. They taught me the importance of knowing what I was doing and being able to explain it. I still do that in my head even when I have no direct contact with the author (as when I edit for big publishers) and when the author isn’t likely to ask me to explain everything I’ve done.

About writing, though — the downside of being self-taught is that though I can review, critique, and coach pretty well, I don’t have a clue about how to teach writing. My syllabus boils down to “Read lots of stuff. Keep writing.” This blog post from Brevity does a fine job of showing how and how much writers (and editors too, I do believe) can learn from reading.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

By Anna Leahy, adapted from the forthcoming anthology, What We Talk about When We Talk about Creative Writing:

Anna Leahy Anna Leahy

In Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose talks about reading as part of how writers learn, perhaps the most important way we learn such things as “the love of language” and “a gift of story-telling.” Of course, a writer must write, but Prose says, “For any writer, the ability to look at a sentence and see what’s superfluous, what can be altered, revised, expanded, and, especially, cut, is essential.” That ability is cultivated by reading.

“I read for pleasure, first,” Prose goes on to say, “but also more analytically, conscious of style, of diction, of how sentences were formed and information was being conveyed, how the writer was structuring plot, creating characters, employing detail and dialogue. […] I read closely, word by word, sentence by sentence, pondering each…

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Structured Revision: Keeping Your Novel on Track

I’ll almost certainly be starting draft 3 of Wolfie before I finish draft 2, so Alison McKenzie’s assurance that it really is OK to edit before you have a complete draft came at just the right time. Wrangling book-length works into shape is a challenge no matter what, but I’m intrigued by her “25K rule” and might try it with novel #3. If you’re working on a novel, novella, or book-length memoir, check it out.

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 #6

This past spring 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 #6:

Your writing will teach you what you need to know.

Every aspiring writer has heard it: “Write what you know.” It’s a terrible cliché.

Well, no, it’s not so terrible, because there’s truth in it. There’s truth in most clichés. The trouble with clichés isn’t their lack of truth. It’s the way they become ossified into conventional wisdom and, gods forbid, rules.

Think about it. If you write what you don’t know, people are going to find you out — unless your skill is such that you can persuade them that you do know it, even if it contradicts what they know, or think they know. This means that you actually know quite a bit.

You probably didn’t start out with all the skills you needed to tell that story either. You developed them on the way.

travvy in field

This is Travvy. The fictional Wolfie looks like his twin brother, but they’ve got different stories to tell.

Knowing stuff is great. Some imagery and a major plot thread of Wolfie, my novel in progress, has grown from what I know about dogs, specifically Alaskan malamutes, particularly Travvy, the Alaskan malamute I live with, on whom the title character is based.

Both Wolfie and my first novel, The Mud of the Place, are set on Martha’s Vineyard, which is where I live. Any plot can take place anywhere, but the places where it unfolds will affect how it happens and who the characters are. People are influenced by our surroundings, both past and present. The better you know your settings — both those that exist in real time and those you make up, and those that are a combination of the two — the more you’ll know about your characters.

On the other hand, when you set out to write a history of X or a biography of Y, you rarely know everything there is to know about the subject. I’ll go out on a limb and say you never know everything there is to know about the subject — and when the book is in print and getting great reviews (let’s be optimistic for a moment here), there’s still more to be learned.

The same goes for memoirs and novels. Memoirs are about your own life, and in fiction you get to make stuff up, so maybe you don’t have to know so much? Ha ha ha. There’s nothing like writing to show you how much you don’t know, and how much of what you do know is incomplete or not quite right or even downright wrong. So memoirists and fiction writers do what historians and biographers do to correct the errors and fill in the gaps: research.

Memoirists may interview family members, reread old letters, or cross-check remembered facts and dates with written records. Mystery writers don’t generally start off knowing a hundred ways to commit murder, or what a body looks like when it’s been shot at close range, or what police officers do at a crime scene. And so on.

Think of writing as a journey of discovery. Don’t limit yourself to what you know. Write what you want to find out, what you’re curious about. If you’re a “planner” — you like to plot everything out in advance — choose a destination that intrigues you. With my first novel, The Mud of the Place, I thought I knew where I was going, but that’s not where I ended up.

Wolfie started with a fairly simple “what if?”: What if a dog like Travvy was running loose in my town, hassling and probably killing livestock? That was answered pretty quickly, but not before it had segued into a question I’ve long been obsessed with but haven’t dared think too hard about. It goes something like this: Hindsight is 20/20, but what do you do when you begin to suspect something bad has happened and maybe is still happening, there’s no way of finding out for sure, and the price of being wrong is very, very high?

Well, I, like my characters, am still somewhat in the dark, and I, like them, have been drawn into unsettling territory: the powerlessness of children, the trickiness of memory, the barriers we throw up against what we can’t afford to know. I’m having conversations with teachers, therapists, and others who’ve been confronted with comparable dilemmas. I’ve read and reread many accounts of adults who have managed to survive similar situations.

Perhaps the strangest thing that’s happened so far is that one supporting character is an animator: he works on animated films with computer-generated graphics. Where the hell did that come from? I’m not a big moviegoer, and apart from a book I worked on some years ago about Pixar Animation Studios, I knew zip about animation. But I knew, immediately and intuitively, that the fact that this guy was an animator could be significant. So I’ve been reading up on animated films, and particularly what animators do.

No way am I ever going to be an animation expert, though I certainly know more about the subject than I did two months ago. I don’t know everything there is to know about Martha’s Vineyard either, but I do know it well enough to know what I don’t know. And that’s enough.

P.S. Here’s an article I turned up while procrastinating researching this blog post. Bret Anthony Johnston’s “Don’t Write What You Know” from TheAtlantic.com. It’s very good.