The Truth is Out There: Fact Checking in Editing

By Rebekah Hunt
There are a lot of things that are considered to be common knowledge. For example, did you know that karaoke is Japanese for tone-deaf? Did you know that Mr. Rogers was a Navy SEAL? Did you know that chewing gum takes seven years to pass through your digestive system? Well, unfortunately for common knowledge such as the above items, most of it is completely untrue. So why did I start this blog with a bunch of lies? I am merely attempting to illustrate a point. Because “common knowledge” often happens to be common garbage, fact checking is imperative in the publishing process, particularly in the editing phase.
Since we at Ooligan are editing books, we are likely to run into fewer instances of “common knowledge” misinformation than we would if we published a newspaper or magazine. However, factual accuracy is just as important in books. Fortunately, we live in the age of boundless information. The internet is out there. Use it.
While a quick Google search might not ensure indisputable scientific veracity of every fact, it is far better to do due diligence than to assume the information is correct. That is how errors slip through. As an editor, to let errors get into print is to do your author a great disservice. Whether the inaccuracy was an error in their knowledge, or simply in their typing (it happens), it is your job to attempt to spare them the potential embarrassment. Setting the facts straight benefits you too, since a published book is a sample of your work as well as your author’s. While your fastidious fact-wrangling may cost you a few extra minutes now, it can be of tremendous importance when shopping your work to potential future employers.
But what about fact in fiction? If a book is all made up anyway, why does it matter if the information is correct? And, in the case of sci-fi and fantasy stuff, how do you even verify it? Let’s handle those one at a time. With general fiction, the stuff the author has made up relies heavily on a world full of actual facts to make the story real to the reader. Inaccuracies can destroy the consistency for a reader and take them right out of the story. Say your author has set his story in 1950’s Georgia and the manuscript lists Augusta as the capital city. Check. This kind of mistake could alienate a lot of readers from the story. Say another of your authors has her heroine romantically wasting away from consumption and the manuscript says that she contracted it by drinking milk. Look it up. In this instance, if your author has set the story before pasteurization of milk was practiced, you can applaud her for her historical acumen and nothing has been hurt by checking on it.
Fact checking matters in sci-fi and fantasy too. Just like in general fiction, anything that represents the real world must be factually accurate to root the story in reality and make the fantastic parts more believable to the reader (think Starfleet Academy in Star Trek, which is located in NE San Francisco and features views of the Golden Gate bridge in its descriptions). If the universe in which the story takes place is invented from whole cloth, facts can and must still be checked. However, for this kind of fact checking, the author is your main source. Facts should be verified by query and, if the work is part of a series, by reference to earlier works in the series. Query, query, query!
Whatever the genre you’re working with, in fact, don’t be afraid to ask your author a lot of questions. You may notice something they didn’t, or you may have made a mistake yourself (it’s possible!), and working together will only strengthen the final product. If you find yourself in a dispute with the author however, always remember it is ultimately their book. If they want to claim that eggs can only be balanced on end during the vernal equinox, there’s nothing you can do about it but grin and bear it, and maybe write a blog about it later.