“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.