Fact and nonfiction

At a recent editorial retreat, a very experienced editor was telling us about how clients sometimes question why the research for a single piece of information can take what seems like an unreasonable amount of time. “The author had provided a photo of a bridge he wanted to use and a caption for it. I searched the name in the caption, found a photo, and it was the wrong bridge. So I looked at maps of where this bridge was supposed to be and tried to find pictures of landmarks close to it…” She ran into one dead end after another, until finally, after hours of searching, she found another photo of the bridge from a different angle, and a name to go with it. “That’s the bridge. So I changed the caption, but finding the right name took the whole day.”

“What would you have done before the Internet?” another editor asked.

“Nothing. There would have been an error in the printed book.”

That conversation made me think quite a bit about the accuracy of sources we consider reliable and this whole business of fact checking in the editorial process. Editors—copy editors in particular—are expected to check facts within the realm of general knowledge; with Google, though, more and more can be considered to be part of that realm. Does this mean that more of the onus of fact checking falls on the editor rather than the author? Much has been said about the unreliability of online information, but are print sources really any better? Didn’t the past lack of Internet search engines just mean that copy editors of yore simply couldn’t spend the time to track down primary sources of information? I can think of two projects I worked on over the past year that were new editions of print-only books, where authors used the old edition as a basis for the new book and my Internet searches revealed errors in their earlier text. I can only imagine that this now happens all the time, meaning that books, if they are properly fact checked, are probably more reliable than they have ever been.

The flip side, of course, is that there such a deluge of new titles being produced now, especially since anyone can self-publish, that the majority of books can’t possibly be thoroughly vetted. And, of course, the Internet is not without its pitfalls. When I come across a term that’s not in my dictionary or a name that doesn’t appear in the Library of Congress Authorities, I do lean on Google to tell me that one spelling gives me 200,000 hits, whereas an alternative spelling gives me 1,200. And those 1,200 may very well be right, but often in those cases, “truthiness” prevails.

I sometimes feel that fact checking is more for the editors’ benefit than the authors’. Oh sure, we’re saving authors from potential embarrassment, discredit, and maybe, in the case of a misquote, a libel suit. But when we go to great lengths to hunt down the exact punctuation and capitalization of a sixteenth-century title that some ship’s second officer put together from his journal, and we end up finding a scanned copy of the original text in an online archive, it’s all about the satisfaction of sleuthing and getting it right. Maybe the reason fact checking can be particularly satisfying is that it’s so much less subjective than other facets of editing; in most cases, the goal is finding the one right answer, not, say, imposing a style decision. The hunt does take time, though, so I suppose we’ll have to subtly tease out of our authors what standard they expect us to uphold for each project. Does this author want me to spend the afternoon tracking down and watching a YouTube video of a lengthy speech to see if he’s accurately quoted a public figure? Or should I trust his research and simply alert him to the risk of misquoting?

Ultimately, even if we editors flag factual errors, authors are free to reject our suggested changes, and in the end our efforts may not matter. Most people still believe, for instance, that Marie Antoinette said, “Let them eat cake” (she didn’t) and that Philip Sheridan said, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian” (a misquote, if he uttered anything like it at all), showing that even for the most persuasive of editors, the reader’s interpretation is beyond her control.

One Response to Fact and nonfiction

  1. Highly thought provoking. I’ve run across that numerous times — errors in previous print editions when doing fact checking for a new ed. Heh! And this

    > it’s all about the satisfaction of sleuthing and getting it right.

    hit the nail on the head all right.

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