This article by Nicole Evelina is from the June 2021 edition of Nink, the monthly newsletter of Novelists, Inc. (NINC). Nink, which is packed each month with informative articles for career novelists, is a benefit of NINC membership.
Fact-checking is perhaps more important today than ever before. Our readers have access to the same information we do and a handful of them like to point out errors. While this is embarrassing, it can also have serious negative effects on a career, even for the most seasoned pros. Look at Jill Abramson, a former executive editor of The New York Times. She was lambasted for errors in her book Merchants of Truth, for which she was accused of plagiarism and improper attribution of sources.
In most cases, publishing houses consider fact-checking the author’s responsibility, as it is part of your final product. However, many nonfiction books are never fact-checked, according to multiple online sources and an informal poll of members of the Biographers International Organization.
Publishing a book or article without fact-checking is dangerous for both the author and publisher, so going through the process is highly recommended. You can hire a fact-checker, but you can also do it yourself. There are pros and cons to the DIY approach.
- You are the expert in your subject, so you know it better than most strangers would.
- If you do it yourself you’ll know for sure it was done to your satisfaction.
- Should anyone question your accuracy, you can speak to how it was verified.
- It saves you money—anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000+ depending on the rate and the length of your book.
- You must learn how to fact-check, whereas if you hire someone, they are (hopefully) already an expert.
- After spending years researching and writing a book, you may be too close to the subject to check it objectively.
- Fact-checking takes a fair amount of time and determination.
- If something slips through, you are 100 percent accountable.
If you choose to do it yourself, I recommend reading The Fact Checker’s Bible by Sarah Harrison Smith. It’s an older book meant for fact-checkers who work with authors but is applicable when checking your own work as well. For a more recent book that covers fact-checking in the digital age, check out The Chicago Guide to Fact-Checking by Brooke Borel, which breaks fact-checking down by type (book, article, etc.) and by type of fact (basic facts, numbers, quotes, analogies, descriptions, etc.)
Step One: Take good notes
Fact-checking begins while you’re doing research. Anyone who has had to write a thesis or is trained in research knows the importance of documenting your sources. But this is not only true for the final book, article, etc.; it also applies to your notes. If you use footnotes or parenthetical documentation—which is (author last name, page number), for example (Evelina, 153)—with each one of your notes, it will make it easier for you to go back during your fact-checking process and make sure you are correct. And it is important to put that information with each fact you note down because you will likely move your notes around as you learn more. If you always keep the source citation with the note, you won’t run the risk of not remembering where it came from.
When working in archives, if they allow you to take non-flash photos of source material, do so. You will thank yourself not only when writing the book, but even more so when you fact-check. If the archive doesn’t allow photography, ask to photocopy the source or scan into a PDF. There is usually a method available, though you may wish to ask if there are restrictions on use (i.e. can you use the photo in your book/article? Are you allowed to post it online?)
Also, don’t discount the value of a bibliography. I keep a running list of every source I consult while researching. Then once I’ve written the book, I copy that list to another file and delete the sources that didn’t make it into the final book. That way, if I realize I failed to cite something or need to go back, I still have a full list of sources in addition to the bibliography that will appear in the back of the book or on my website (if the book has only a list of major sources.)
Step Two: Identify the facts
Hopefully you’ll have time away from your manuscript before fact-checking so you can look at it with fresh eyes. Read through and underline every statement of fact you will need to check. Borel advises to read your work from the perspective of someone who is skeptical of your approach or wants to find errors. Highlight what they might question.
Step Three: Double-check your sources
The first thing you should do to check a fact is look back at your notes and confirm they match. Then if you have the source material at hand, do a second check. If it is archival material that you can’t easily access, you have two choices: you can email the archive and see if they will either fact check it for you or send you an electronic copy of what you need or hope your notes are accurate. Obviously, the first is preferable, but sometimes you don’t have that option.
Step Four: Look for generalizations and exaggerations
It’s very easy to write in sweeping generalizations and nearly everyone does at least once in a draft. (See what I did there? Even that sentence contains both.) Hopefully your editor caught most of them but go back and mark any that you see. Is there a way you can hone what you mean to be more accurate? These types of statements aren’t as serious as plagiarism, but they can annoy readers, make you look like you don’t know what you’re talking about, and will bring out the ire of scholars.
Step Five: Check every single quote
Be especially careful with quotes because you run the risk of being accused of defamation in the form of libel if they are inaccurate, especially if they create a negative impression of the source. If you have recordings of your interviews, listen to them again or review your handwritten notes. If feasible, run quotes you are unsure of by the source and get their approval in writing, especially if you don’t have a recording to back you up.
With academic writing, this is less of a worry because those types of quotes are more informational than opinion, but make sure the facts in them are accurate. If you are quoting from unpublished source material (such as a letter, diary or other private correspondence held in an archive or personal collection) your quotes must be verbatim, misspellings, weird punctuation and all. Also, be sure you have permission from the estate or archival institution to quote from the source. (That is usually taken care of when you research at an archive, but if you are unsure, ask again.)
Step Six: Check for plagiarism
We would all like to believe that we aren’t guilty of plagiarism, but it can be easy to do inadvertently, especially when you are summarizing someone else’s thoughts in your own words. Cite your source whether or not you are quoting them or paraphrasing them. Compare the words in your book/article to your source. Be on the lookout for any wording or phrases you wouldn’t ordinarily use or that are overly formal. Those are good indicators that you need to double-check. Also, watch out for quotation marks that were accidentally removed in editing or citations that were lost when information was moved around.
If you doubt a quote or phrase, run it through Google with quotation marks around it. You’d be surprised how quickly it can find a source. That shouldn’t be your only method of verification, but it is a place to start. As always, check your notes and the source.
Also, be aware that it is possible to plagiarize yourself. That can happen if you use your own writing in more than one place with the exact same (or really close) wording.
There is software that detects plagiarism, but many are only available to teachers/professors and educational institutions. However, several companies like Grammarly ($11.66-$12.50/month) and Quetext ($9.99/month) offer low-cost online options where you copy/paste your text in. For a fee of $19.95-$39.95 you can use Scribbr, which is considered by some as the most accurate and useful. Scribbr also has an add-on called Own Sources Checker that allows you to check unpublished sources. As of this writing, Own Sources is free if you use the regular Scribbr program. These types of programs can be useful in showing you potential errors, but they cannot and should not replace the steps outlined above.
Fact-checking can be one of the more arduous parts of writing nonfiction, but it is essential. You are better off double-checking everything now, instead of after someone questions or sues you. After all, you are an expert and your reputation—as well as your scholarship—can only benefit from extra due diligence.
Nicole Evelina is a USA Today bestselling author of nonfiction, historical fiction, and historical fantasy. She feels anyone’s pain who follows the advice in this article, as she recently fact-checked her first biography. It wasn’t fun, but now she can sleep better at night.