Fact Checking – Vital or a Waste of Time?

questions, choicesHmmmm.

I spend a lot of my time editing non-fiction; no matter how much I love fiction, the factual stuff takes up more of my time at the moment.

And with factual editing comes fact checking.

Now, you may have a client who says ‘all the facts are correct’ but if, as you are working through the book, or article, or brochure, a ‘fact’ jumps out at you as incorrect, what should you do as a professional wordsmith?

Do you just shrug your shoulders, flag it and move past it, or do you start checking?

What should you do if you’re only being paid for a basic edit, and fact-checking is not included?

If it’s a subject you are very familiar with, you may automatically notice an incorrect ‘fact’, but if you are new to the subject it may not be immediately obvious. And fact-checking is time consuming. VERY time consuming.

time, clocks, rush job

Take, for example, an 80,000 word manuscript that has a lot of company names and personal names.

You spot an error, stop what you are doing and hit the internet.

You need to know if a university professor’s name is correct – so you go to his university webpage and look for the staff list. Easy peasy – but you’ve lost three minutes right there.

You suspect a company name is wrong – again, you look for the company website. Bingo. Three minutes.

But then you come across a name that seems wrong, but he isn’t an academic, nor a company CEO. How do you confirm the spelling? You hit the internet and look at Wikipedia – but beware … although the site is now a LOT more believable than it was, it is still not a primary source, and errors occur. You have to conduct more of a search to pinpoint the actual name, or the one most commonly used. Ten minutes gone. If you are lucky.

There’s a scholarly paper that’s been cited, but it looks odd. Go to the publisher, institute or author. If it’s not there, hit Google Scholar and search. Bang. Ten minutes.

question mark

Say you have an average text of 80,000 words, with an industry standard of 250 words per page. That’s 320 pages.

And there are two possible errors every five pages. That’s a very generous 128 facts to check (I have worked on documents where there have been four or five (or more) facts to check per page!).

Say each fact check takes you on average three minutes – that’s 384 minutes taken over the whole book. Have you done the maths yet? If I’m right, and admittedly I’m rubbish at maths, that means that throughout the course of the edit, you will add on around SIX AND A HALF HOURS for fact checking. SIX AND A HALF HOURS!

Makes you think doesn’t it.

Bet you’ve never looked at it like that have you? It certainly opened my eyes.

worry shock stepping out of comfort zone

So now, with this information, what do you do when you come across a factual error in the work you’re editing?

Ideally fact-checking should be done before the manuscript reaches the copy-editing stage but, if you are required to fact check, get it in writing exactly how much checking you will do, and what types of information will be checked. No matter what you are required to check, be aware of potentially libellous or damaging statements, and flag them up.

You may decide that you can’t live with moving past potential errors – consistency and accuracy are part of a copy-editor’s brief after all. As a professional it’s something you have to be aware of and address.

But errors can creep in in all kinds of ways:

names – personal, place, business.

dates – of anything and everything.

addresses – includes email addresses and websites as well as physical addresses. Addresses are important, especially with company documentation; an incorrect address can be devastating for business.

titles – personal and published. Think nobility, governmental and honorary titles as well as titles of books, periodicals and anything physical, published or not.

instructions and directions – I was taught to write down instructions by breaking them down to the smallest action, something that comes in very handy for checking instructions. Break them down, people, and see if they really make sense.

Remember if you do fact-check – never take the first answer you find, always verify facts with at least two independent sources, and primary sources are your friend.

clock, time, watch

There are a number of ways to deal with fact-checking, and it’s best to lay it down right at the start:

  1. Make it quite clear to the client that fact checking is not included in the negotiated price, but consistency will be attempted and obvious errors flagged for checking.
  2. Allow for a certain, small, amount of fact-checking in your time working on the manuscript. Encompass this in your base rate and don’t charge any extra for it. Flag up any time-consuming searches that may appear – the ones where you know it’s going to be difficult to check them.
  3. Negotiate with the client for an additional flat-fee charge for fact-checking, or an increase of hours quoted for, if it becomes apparent from the editorial sample that there may be an issue with factual information (you do get a sample to look at before agreeing to take on a job, don’t you?).
  4. Negotiate with the client for an additional charge for fact-checking, with a proviso that only XX number of minutes will be spent per manuscript and if work exceeds that, you will return to the client to negotiate further.
  5. Say hell, yes! Dive in, correct all the facts, take as much time as you like, and watch your profits slowly slide away.

It may seem a difficult subject, but some people make a living from fact checking and nothing more. Don’t shy away from talking about this with your client, and don’t take it for granted that you have to fact-check as standard. Negotiate, get it in writing and remember that although a copy-editor’s job can be fascinating, you are a business owner, and must think like one.

Non-Fiction Critiques

books are dreams made reality

Books are dreams made into reality.

If you are a self-publishing author, you probably know that a critique is far more than someone looking at your manuscript and telling you that a character’s eye colour has changed halfway through the book, or that you have a saggy middle (the book, not you, although it is an occupational hazard).

Critiques can help you tighten up your story, make the flow better, highlight strengths and weaknesses, and show any problems that need to be addressed before you move forward. A critique is an impartial analysis and assessment of your book that you just can’t get from family and friends.

But did you realise that if you are a non-fiction author critiques are just as valid?

Generally a non-fiction critique will still address flow but it will address the following:

Content – does it capture the reader’s attention, is the idea a good one, are there things that need adding or deleting, and does it make sense?

Presentation and Format – is it arranged logically, is the style appropriate?

Pace – is the book paced right or is it too fast or too slow?

Voice – is the voice appropriate for the intended audience?

Marketability – will anyone actually buy the book?

Writing – is the spelling, punctuation, grammar, language, structure and the overall writing of the book in order or does it need attention?

glasses highlighting a book

A trained editor will pick up things you won’t.

Of course, this isn’t all of what a critique involves, but you get the idea. Non-fiction books need love and attention too and just because you have a brilliant premise it doesn’t mean that you can write the next best-selling non-fiction tome. There is just as much competition for capturing a non-fiction audience as there is for a fiction one.

But isn’t a critique a waste of money? Can’t you just get your friends to read your book and comment on it?

Well, no and no. When you give friends, family and acquaintances your book to read it can be scary, but most people will tell you what you want to hear. For one thing they’re not trained to objectively dissect a manuscript, or know what to look out for. Friends don’t want to hurt your feelings, and while editors don’t want to do that either, we will tell you what is best for your book.

It’s not cheap but it could actually save you money. Here’s how:

  1. A critique will highlight those areas that need attention, and will offer you ways to address them.
  2. It will allow you to look at your work through the eyes of a reader before you hire a developmental editor, copy-editor and proofreader. In the first stage of editing what you believe to be a finished manuscript you may find that there is more work to be done.
  3. By addressing the problems brought up in a critique you can do the work necessary to move onto that second step in the publishing process. The less work the editor has to do on your manuscript the cheaper it will be for you.

So when you have that book written and you’re not sure whether to hire a developmental editor, a copy-editor, or if you think it’s perfect and you want to rush into hiring a proofreader, take a step back and ask yourself whether you are really ready. By arranging a critique you can look at the whole picture and address the issues raised before hiring an editor to carry out a more in-depth edit. And it might just save you money.


If you would like to hire me to critique your book, contact me and we can chat.