Why You Shouldn’t Believe a Word You’ve Written

Paulie image
“Paulie’s watching you, his gun is loaded, and he’s going to treat you with as much contempt and brutal violence as he’d treat an FBI informant if you so much as put a hyphen in Tic Tac.”

I’ve got some good news and bad news. The bad news is, while you’re reading this, factual errors are festering a few clicks away in your manuscript. I’m not talking about internal inconsistencies, like Sean Stevens’ surname becoming Stephens on three occasions on page 167 because you changed the spelling during the second draft, thought you’d spotted all the alterations but missed a thicket of Stephenses. Yes, there are probably a few errors like that in your novel, too, but those are not my subject here today. I’m talking about the fact that, though you’ve populated an imaginary world with fictional characters, that fictional world intersects with the real world, and you’ve mentioned real things, such as places, people, brands, film titles, song lyrics, events, and so on, and some of that stuff you’ve got anywhere from slightly wrong to utterly and totally incorrect.

How can I be so sure without having met you, especially considering you’re a really nice person of above-average intelligence with a wide circle of friends? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a manuscript without these kinds of errors in it, ranging from the relatively benign (a brand name misspelled here and there) to the potentially fatal (repeatedly using a song title as a motif, then thematically interweaving it with the action at the climax of the story – only, the title was wrong). You probably see factual errors fairly frequently, too, even in traditionally published books, which, you would think and hope, are rigorously edited. (I’ll come back to that subject later.)

But don’t beat yourself up about making mistakes – I’m here to do that for you. No, only joking, but it’s not surprising that mistakes of the sort I’m talking about happen. Eighty to a hundred thousand words or more is a lot of word-count real estate for an author to preserve in an error-free condition, which means that as a writer who wants to be taken seriously, you need to have a fact-checking strategy in place. Ideally, you should make fact checking part of your writing process, not wait till the end to fact-check everything. If you’re writing historical fiction, or you’re a crime writer who goes into the specifics of investigative procedure, or you’re writing a story set in another country, you’re probably intensely aware of this and spent a lot of time researching particular topics relevant to your story before putting digits to keyboard. But even you people need to be careful: perhaps you’ve focused in on researching certain key subjects but neglected looking at the bigger picture. 

Pick up errors early on and, if they are of the more serious variety, you should be able to strip them out of your novel before they contaminate the whole, or a chunk, of your story. So, you need to set up regular error patrols while you’re writing your novel, but I’m going to assume that you haven’t done that and you’ve finished your book without having fact-checked it. Actually, even if you had been going on regular error patrols while writing, I would’ve still suggested you go on a big fact-checking offensive afterwards, because important things are at stake here: your credibility, your readers’ trust in you, and your avoiding the acute embarrassment that comes from seeing one-star reviews of your book posted on Amazon detailing all the factual errors you made and citing page numbers. 

It’s amazing how quickly a mistake can ruin the credibility of an otherwise sound work of fiction. When I was eleven, twelve years old, I was into tanks. I made model tanks from Tamiya kits, went to The Bovington Tank Museum in Dorset, daydreamed about building my own tank from bits and bobs from a scrapyard, and I read all of Sven Hassel’s novels, which tell the story of a mischievous German tank crew fighting during the Second World War. Wheels of Terror(In case you’ve never heard of Sven Hassel, he sold over fifty million books worldwide and died only a few months back, aged 95. Here’s a good blog post about his influence on readers like the twelve-year-old me.) So, it was tanks, tanks, tanks, tanks, tanks and more tanks for me back then. Anyway, the first time I saw the film Patton, about the legendary US general of that name, played by George C Scott – you know the movie, right? – I was captivated, since it was big on armoured warfare. Captivated that was until I saw the tanks that were being passed off as Second World War ones. In the place of my beloved Tigers, Panzer IVs and Shermans, everyone, including the Germans, was driving around in post-war American tanks. ‘I don’t believe it!’ I probably said while no doubt gluing a .50-calibre machine-gun to the commander’s cupola of an M4A3E8 Sherman. (You know, the one with better suspension than earlier Shermans. Oh, I’m sorry, I thought everyone was interested in tanks.) ‘Those are M47s and M48s from after the War – and they’re all American!’

As an adult, I can be forgiving about the film-makers’ use of American tanks. Presumably there weren’t any large formations of intact Second World War German panzers and Allied Shermans knocking around in Spain, where the tank battle scenes in Patton were filmed, in the late 1960s. The film’s producers didn’t make a mistake exactly, just solved a logistical problem in a cost-effective way. I can forgive the film-makers, but that doesn’t change the fact that I find it impossible to watch the film once the battle scenes start, because whatever the realities were when it came to sourcing tanks in the late 1960s, those tanks in the film are plain wrong. Which is a shame, since had I not once been a tank buff, I might agree with the people who say Patton is one of the best war films of all time. But once those post-war American tanks come into view, I have to switch the TV off, the movie-watching equivalent of throwing a book across the room. 

As a writer rather than a film-maker, you have no excuses for getting this kind of stuff wrong. It costs you nothing to do whatever your equivalent is of type ‘Panzer IV’ rather than ‘M47’, just the time it takes to establish the facts through a little research. If you do make a mistake, it will put a hole in the hull of your credibility in your readers’ eyes, and it doesn’t take more than one, two or three holes for that credibility to sink to the bottom of the ocean. Readers are a knowledgeable lot and they will spot any mistakes. I’m sure we all have subjects we know more about than the average person. The ones I do include tanks and Brazil, as I lived there for a couple of years and still go back when I can. If a character in a novel says the Amazon is being deforested to make way for coffee plantations (coffee is only cultivated in the south and southeast), or Rio De Janeiro is the capital of Brazil (Brasilia is, of course, though Rio should be), or – heavens forbid – Spanish is the first language in Brazil (I don’t have to tell you Brazilians speak Portuguese, right?), then putdownable or throw-across-the-roomable the book he or she says it in suddenly becomes. (Those were all examples taken from real books, by the way.)

Now I said at the outset that I have some good news as well as bad. Well, the good news is that the Internet has made it easier than ever to check facts, though of course you need to take care and find reliable and credible sources. I’ll come back to that in a moment, because there’s more bad news I need to share first: if you thought there were any incorrect facts in your manuscript, you would’ve corrected them by now. Unfortunately, right now, while those errors lurk in your story, you actually think everything’s fine, and you’re probably spending your time trying to work out how to leverage Twitter to market your novel instead of thinking about things like fact checking.

So here’s what I suggest you do. You need to break the bond with your novel first and get some distance from it, if you’re not in that position already. I can’t tell you how – I’m sure you know a way. Once you’ve done whatever it is you need to do to get that important distance between you and your manuscript, look at it again, but I wouldn’t want to hear anything like the following, were I to be a fly on your wall with keen hearing and an understanding of English: ‘Have I missed the boat with prologues? Someone’s agent said they’re now out.’ Or, ‘The way that I, the author, become a character in the story on page 254 really adds a postmodern frisson to the narrative architecture.’ You’re not looking at your novel in terms of stuff like that here. Don’t be seduced back into being the creative person who gets a buzz out of your own writing. You’re on fact-checking duty, soldier. Nuts and bolts, people. 

In true self-help style, I’m going to gift you a technique – a mantra no less – that will aid you as you fact-check. But it’s not so much a self-affirmation as a self-defamation. Before you start going through your manuscript, I want you to close your eyes and repeat this ten times: ‘The person who wrote my book is an idiot and gets everything wrong.’ Ten times. That’s right: I recommend you don’t believe a word you wrote. Doing so will improve the factual credibility of your novel no end, because since you have no idea what you’ve got wrong in your story, you’re going to have to check everything, which means telling yourself you get everything wrong is the only way to shake you out of your complacency and make sure you end up getting everything right.

Remember, I want you to be someone else here. You’re your own copy editor, not author you. (Now you’ve joined the ranks of copy editors, by the way, I’d like to extend a big welcome. Can I interest you in a subscription to The Journal of Contemporary Hyphenation? No? Some small talk, then: so, what’s your favourite typo? Wait a moment, you’re only acting the part of copy editor and you don’t want to do this stuff full-time. Okay, sorry.) Right, so as I said, remember the person who wrote your book is a complete idiot; it’s now up to you to sort the mess out and make the manuscript safe for readingkind. Starring you and coming to a book store or Kindle near you soon. 

I suggest you break your novel down into units – single chapters or sections should do it. Go through each unit one at a time and highlight and check absolutely everything you wouldn’t stake your life on being correct or true. It might help to imagine, say, Paulie ‘Walnuts’ Gualtieri from The Sopranos (pictured, top) sitting in an armchair in the same room with you, cradling a shotgun, ready to off you, should you fail to correct even the slightest error. How sure are you now that something you’ve written isn’t based on a false assumption, or isn’t an urban legend masquerading as fact, or a common error propagated on the Internet, or a common misspelling of a brand name? Paulie’s watching you, his gun is loaded, and he’s going to treat you with as much contempt and brutal violence as he’d treat an FBI informant if you so much as put a hyphen in Tic Tac.

So, where do you go to check your facts? I said the good news is that it’s never been easier to fact-check, because of the Internet. Well, what I meant by that is when I started out as a magazine copy editor (‘sub editor’ in sterling) on a music magazine over twenty years ago, it was my job to fact-check every feature or review I worked on, and a lot of the time that meant picking up the phone and calling people, which could be tedious and time consuming, but was also very necessary. In the Internet age, with so much information on so many topics so few clicks away, you’ve never had it so good. But of course some sources are more reliable than others, and it’s not always easy to differentiate between the reliable and unreliable ones. 

I’m not going to give a long list of good sources here, partly because you haven’t told me what your book’s about, but also because the most important thing, as you go on your mistake-hunting mission, is that you have the right attitude of total mistrust in yourself, plus a healthy mistrust of sources. Once you have that, everything else should fall into place. We have to mention Wikipedia though, right? It used to be the butt of jokes about its credibility, however I find it can be a pretty good resource these days, and I use it a lot when I fact-check. It’s definitely a port of call for me. Do I trust Wikipedia? You must be joking. Just the other day I was double-checking that Keystone Kops is spelled like that, with a second K, and looked in Wikipedia, only to find it erroneously spells the name with a C. (I said I wasn’t going to list good sources, but here’s a good site for films, TV and actors: http://www.imdb.com.) You should be very stingy in allocating trust to sources. Most of the time, it’s essential to consider information given by a number of them, but even if more than one source is saying the same thing, that doesn’t necessarily make it so. They may be quoting the same font of misinformation. Which might be Wikipedia.

I said most of the time, because there are some sources you should be able to trust without having to go further. If you’re checking the spelling of a brand name, for instance, the relevant company should spell the brand name correctly on its website. Use that. Bear in mind, though, that if you’re setting your novel at a different time, a familiar brand name may have had a different spelling back then. Walmart, for example, was spelled Walmart from 1962 till 1964, when it became Wal-Mart, then changed to Wal*Mart in 1992, then came back full circle, becoming Walmart again in 2008. Wow, what a journey it’s been for the retail giant. 

I said I’d come back to talking about fact checking in the context of traditionally published books. Copy editors working for book publishers should fact-check each manuscript as a matter of course, especially since the publisher’s credibility is at stake as well as the author’s, yet I wouldn’t take it for granted that they actually do. If you’re having a book published, check with your editor. But even if your editor tells you that yes, a copy editor is going to fact-check your novel, there will be a limit to how far that person is prepared to go while on a fact-checking expedition through your fictional landscape. If you’ve written a book with a nuanced setting – a thriller set in Cuba in the years leading up to Castro’s takeover, say – your copy editor will probably check the spellings of real names and places, for example, but is unlikely to verify that what you’ve said about real people and places is actually true. 

Ultimately, whether you’re self-publishing or being traditionally published, you need to take responsibility for ensuring your novel doesn’t contain any factual errors, because if you don’t and you get stuff badly wrong, you’ll lose your credibility and might pick up a few of those embarrassing one-star reviews on Amazon in the process.

Self-Editing Checklist 

1. Establish some distance between you and your manuscript, then come back to it. 

2. Tell yourself you’re an idiot and get everything wrong. Do this ten times. Now break down your novel into sections and go through each section, highlighting everything you wouldn’t be able to stake your life on being correct or true. 

3. Check, double-check and triple-check all the highlighted information.

4. When you’re writing in future, make sure you regularly patrol your manuscript for factual errors. Obviously you don’t want to disrupt your creative flow by doing this, so find a way to regularly integrate a bout of fact checking into your schedule that works for you. If you don’t, you risk building your narrative on errors, turning them into bigger problems than they might otherwise be. 

* Every post in this blog series deals with an issue I commonly see in manuscripts.

I intend to post a new part in this series of blogs about once every ten days or so. If there’s a subject that bugs you while you’re self-editing your novel, feel free to send me a message with details. I may be able to cover the topic in a future post.

5 thoughts on “Why You Shouldn’t Believe a Word You’ve Written

  1. I’m with you all the way here, Marcus. Plus, I really enjoyed your post, especially the bit about the tanks. I’m not into tanks, but I did the same kind of thing with cars when I was a teenager. Nowadays, six+ decades of life have left their erratic mark on my specialist knowledge. I read a novel recently which started off with a great deal of promise and then had a section in which the hero and his girlfriend go out on a yacht. The writer clearly had no idea about sailing and had apparently not done any research. The result was something which was as convincing as the outpourings of a car salesman at a vacuum-cleaner expo. Of course, as you rightly surmise, I can’t guarantee the efficacy of the factual foundations of my own novels (one published, the other in train), but I do take things very slowly when it comes to writing and that includes spending a lot of time trying to ensure accuracy. Only time and the activities of the Fact Fairy will tell…
    Please keep up the good work. It is very much appreciated.

    1. Hi Stuart. Yes, your heart sinks when you read something written by an author in which he or she betrays a total lack of insight into an area of life or the world that you know something about. I wrote the blog from the perspective of self-editing, but with my writer’s hat on, I would add that when you do research a subject properly, it’s amazing what can come up. There’s always a detail or two you weren’t aware of before that can be used to take your writing in an interesting direction.

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