What No One Ever Told You About Editing, Pt. 3: Fact Checking

red-pen-3jpgIn a previous post, I said that being smart requires two things: 1. thinking, “Is there an easier way to do this?” and 2. having access to Google.

For this edition of “What no one ever told you about editing,” the number one of that strategy doesn’t even apply. There’s no need to think of an easier way. Just have Google at the ready because authors absolutely make stuff up.

Um, Okay, But Why Do I Care if They Make Stuff Up?

Hard truth time.

Many times, real-world folks mostly want an editor not because they’re aiming for the most beautiful prose of all time. They want a safeguard against being embarrassed.

They may not ask you to fact check. They may not actually know they want you to fact check. But they want you to be a filter for potential humiliation. If something ridiculously untrue and easy to verify slips through, they will think (whether fairly or not), “Where was [your name here] on that one?”

So. Should you fact check things that aren’t easily verifiable, such as company-specific knowledge? Nope, don’t charge the client for tons of extra time. But is fact checking a universally understood part of your job as editor, like an unspoken contract with the client? Yeah, kind of.

“That Doesn’t Seem Right

I was once handed a letter from a high-ranking executive at a company for inclusion in an annual report. This letter claimed that Bermuda was a halfway point between the U.K. and the U.S. I read that sentence and thought, “Huh. That doesn’t seem right.” And just the other day, I edited something that claimed “Leone, France,” was the location of a conference. I had to google the conference to make sure that I was correct in thinking that “Lyon” was meant and not some city I hadn’t heard of spelled “Leone.” Microsoft Word hadn’t flagged it, so I’m glad I knew to check.

These are the types of things that are not the end of the world, mistake-wise, but they can embarrass authors or organizers on a fairly public scale, and I think much of an editor’s job is to prevent these types of embarrassments. And mistakes can have more damaging consequences. What if there were a Leone, France, and folks were booking travel to the wrong place? That’s a serious hit to the public’s trust in the organization publishing the brochure.

In the same brochure, I also had this in a sentence: “This city…is located in the southern part of the Rhine-Main-Area,” and I was pretty sure that “Rhine-Main-Area” wasn’t going to be the correct way of noting the area. (If you’re wondering about specifics, I doubted that “area” was going to be capitalized and that the whole thing would be a hyphenated cluster.) So I googled it. That brings us to the next point…

Plagiarism, Ug

This trip to the search engine in the case of this brochure revealed not only the error in this sentence but also the error in Wikipedia’s sentence…because this entire section of the document was a copy/paste job from Wikipedia. Sigh.

Plagiarism, whether in school or in the business world, is often not meant to be malicious, nor does it necessarily show any lack of integrity on the author’s part. In this case, the writer just wanted to add some facts about the city to a pamphlet for a conference so the reader wouldn’t need to go to Wikipedia on their own and get the exact same information. It’s hardly the end of the world to copy in cases like these. However, as a recent grad and essay coach who’d encountered policies that could punish plagiarism with expulsion, I’m used to the stakes being high as far as plagiarism goes. And I still take a pretty hard line on it. If I hear a voice change in a piece and my spidey sense tingles, I don’t let it slide. The source needs to be identified, the text needs to rephrased, and, preferably, the material should be cited. And once I’ve found one copy/paste job, I know something about the author. I’m on red alert.

Now, here’s where I’ve relaxed since school. Technically, if you get information from a source and you rephrase it in your own words, you still have to cite or it’s plagiarism. In the real world, a copy/paste job on something like a brochure, you’re not going to use the back page as a bibliography. That’s just not realistic. If the brochure is, for instance, about a place with easily-google-able information, such as the year a city was founded, I’ll just rephrase so the exact wording isn’t a copy/paste job. Half the time, the copy/paste source needs editing anyway.

Plagiarism is all over the real world, especially from people who lack (or are years separated from) higher education. They never learned how to properly engage with other people’s written work. I once worked on a book on entrepreneurship. It was over 100 pages long, and I noticed even in the first few pages that the voice seemed choppy. When a oddly specific statistic appeared without citation on page three (something like “83.6%”), alarm bells were ringing furiously. As I started googling verbatim sentences, time after time, I realized his entire book was a Frankenstein monster of other books, academic journals, published research, business bloggers, you name it.

The book I was editing was thoroughly researched, and the author had probably done years of information-gathering, stringing all the bits together to make his own point. That’s exactly how good academic papers work and is seldom seen in non-scholarly writing! But he was going to spend another few years going back and citing the hundreds and hundreds of sources he had copied and pasted without crediting in the slightest, because that cannot, cannot fly–not even in the real world, where pragmatism often supersedes stubborn adherence to rules.

One Last Thing: What They DO Tell You About Editing!

References. Bibliographies. Works Cited. Whatever form they take, you’ll meet them again, even when you’re out of school. Knowing how to build a proper reference section has served me better than just about anything I learned in school. Well, beyond the more abstract, critical-thinking-type lessons, anyway.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve needed to find a title at an online bookstore, go to the publisher’s website to hunt down their city, revisit the Chicago Manual of Style’s rules for citing online journals, track down a blog post and figure out how to cite it, etc. Getting good at this in school had been extremely valuable to me afterwards.

Bonus

A recent post from copyediting.com on fact checking

 

That’s it for this series on editing. I hope to get back to books soon. I’m wading through American Pastoral. It’s good, but it’s taking absolutely forever to get through because I pretty much don’t “do” leisure right now. These days, it’s all work, travel, or preparing for travel, or unpacking. I always used to read on planes because I couldn’t concentrate, but even that now is work time instead of forced chill time. I’d ask you to feel sorry for me, but I’m going to fabulous places like London and Scotland and Panama, so I feel like no one’s going to be playing me any songs on the violin.

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