Sweating Small Stuff Prevents Big Trouble

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate, our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”

A lot of people think Nelson Mandela said that. I saw it attributed to him quite frequently just after he died. It got around so much that Slate eventually put out a story about the quote … which actually belongs to Marianne Williamson.

Some time ago, I was reading a novel by a very popular author. One of her characters was a student at the University of Virginia, and in a conversation with another character, the student indicated that something was on the other side of the campus. I’m not sure what ultimately happened to any of those characters because I stopped reading. The University was my home for four beautiful years, but it does not have a campus. The University has Grounds.

I used to wonder how factual missteps like that made their way onto the page for the whole world to see. Now I realize that I’ve been asking the wrong question. This isn’t really about how an editorial staff allowed factual errors onto the page. It’s more about how writers allow those errors to get to editorial staff.

Back when I was in newspaper journalism, my editors kept an eye out for glaring factual errors but left the bulk of the fact-checking to me. As the person closest to the story, closest to the sources and closest to the facts, I was the person best suited to make sure things were as I said they were. My editor would choose my side if he had to, but I knew if he said I was right, I’d better be damned sure I was right.

Now that I’m doing the editing, I also place the burden of fact-checking on the author. If I run across something like a campus at the University of Virginia, I will mark it, but I’m not actually checking for problems. I don’t think the writer wants me to do that, either; it’s terribly time-consuming.

The more serious consequence is that one factual error makes me call surrounding facts into question. I’m not going to check them, but I don’t fully believe them, either. That’s a problem for you as a writer.

Avoiding this problem is simple. Your long checklist of things to do before you send your manuscript to the editor should include fact-checking. You really have to check everything. Not long ago, I was sure Voltaire was responsible for “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” As it happens, Voltaire never actually said that, even though a lot of people think he did. Evelyn Beatrice Hall wrote it, but I only found out when I checked it. What you don’t know can hurt you, but what you think you know can hurt you even more, so pick a nice reliable resource and get comfortable.

That very popular author I mentioned earlier can probably afford to lose me as a reader. She could probably afford to lose all the people I told about the nonexistent campus at U.Va. Can you afford that kind of hit to your credibility?

A few minutes of research can save you lots of trouble. Be the first to stand behind your story, and keep your facts straight.

**Freelance editor Lexi Walker will be posting on issues of grammar, usage, and style every month. She knows that her firm approach to editing stings a little but prefers to think that the momentary discomfort means the process is working.

4 thoughts on “Sweating Small Stuff Prevents Big Trouble

  • So true, Lexi! I admit that I will sometimes give the author a gimme on a few small things, but the big stuff is non-negotiable. How do I define the Big Stuff varies from genre to genre and would take too long to list here. However, the fact remains that accuracy is crucial if you want readers to suspend disbelief. Non-fiction is a tougher audience by far, but even fiction readers have their near-and-dear tropes. Thank you for once again making me think. I’ll be subjecting my current WIP’s to a tad more scrutiny going forward. Thanks!

    • As an editor, I’m a hard case, definitely, but like you, as a reader, I will give an author a pass on the first couple of little things. The first time, I’ll pause long enough to think, “Well, maybe she didn’t know,” or “Maybe I’m wrong about that.” (Nameless Author from my post should have known, and I knew I was right, so that’s an exception.) After two little things — and they should be very little — I start to develop a bit of an attitude problem. Small stuff has a way of yanking you out of the story!

  • I had a similar experience recently. A popular romance author set a book in the town where I live. She wasn’t explicit enough to have any glaring errors, but the way she wrote about it sounded foreign. Even though I haven’t been here that long, and I don’t know a lot about the area myself, it made me stop and wonder.

    It’s like the show NCIS. Every once in a while the fearless agents will have to travel from their office to Naval Station Norfolk. I’m not sure if the office is supposed to be at the Navy Yard in D.C., or at the Marine base in Quantico (Va.), but somehow it has taken the crew as little as 45 minutes to make the trip by car. … I guarantee you, that’s not possible.

    Another example, “The Bounty Hunter” with Jennifer Aniston and Russell Crowe. Those two were skipping back and forth between Manhattan and Atlantic City like it was a trip across town. Even with no traffic (which, trust me, ain’t happening), it’s at least a couple hours. It was so ridiculous, I couldn’t enjoy the movie.

    Really great points, Lexi. Thanks, as always, for keeping us on our toes.

    • I think I saw that episode with the 45-minute trip. I remember wondering where the office was, and then when it turned out to be about where I thought it was, I remember wondering what propulsion system those folks were using to get to Norfolk that fast. I was so engrossed by the whole thing that I had trouble paying attention to the rest of the story.

      Transit time is one of those things I’m talking about, though. How hard is it to check that, even if you’re guessing at it? Not even the newest math would have clocked that trip at 45 minutes.

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