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That's My Expert Opinion
by Hilary Evans
My first major writing mistake came during a
stint for a local paper. I misspelled a business owner's name. At the time, I
was mortified, but it was an excellent learning experience. There are certain
mishaps writers are not allowed to make, mainly because they are hard to make up
for. The following advice can't keep your expert from holding a grudge, but it
may save your reputation.
Misspelling a Name
Names are very important in the news world.
Being careless could give the wrong woman credit for curing cancer, or make an
innocent man a criminal.
How you correct this depends largely on the
expert, and the piece you are writing. In my situation, an apology was not
enough. The business owner was especially offended. He felt that I didnt
respect his opinion, or his help, enough to get his name right..
I needed to write a correction. This is a blurb,
usually printed on the second or third page, which states an article printed on
such-and-such day, on such-and-such page, contained a mistake, and what the
correct information is. When it was printed, I mailed him a copy along with a
request to use him as a source in the future. He said sure, I could call him for
an interview...as long as I got his name right.
Quotes are tricky business. Usually misquoting
is accidental, but there are times it isnt. Interview subjects to question
whether you made a mistake, or planned to misuse their name.
Bad grammar is behind most honest mistakes.
Quotes are only used for things that are actually spoken. You can paraphrase
without using quotation marks, but you can not invent an opinion where there
wasnt one. Sometimes people are misquoted because of a miscommunication, and
sometimes people are misquoted because its convenient for the
When dealing with this problem, be honest.
Figure out why the mistake happened. Were you confused on how to quote? Did you
write too fast and scramble your notes? Generally, corrections arent printed
unless there are major mistakes. You can let your interview subject, and your
editor, know there was a problem and why it happened. Dont offer excuses, but
mention if you learned something. Admit if you were confused how to use quotes
or that your note-taking skills need a once-over.
On the other hand, if your notes and memory
agree that your expert said what you wrote, stand behind your quote. There are
times we say things, change our minds, and dont like what weve said in the
past. Dont be a scapegoat for an interview subject's poor choice of words.
Mixing up the Facts
When you write for small publications, you have
a bigger impact on their reputations. When you use experts, you control their
names as well. Ask your interview subjects if you can contact them later with
further questions. Clarify everything you intend to use. The fear of having an
article go to print with blaring mistakes in it, the effects on the people
counting on you to be accurate, is the worst thing I've faced as a freelancer.
At one time, I queried a regional magazine about
a new savings plan in the area. The piece was approved; I spoke with a financial
planner, and sent the story in. Two weeks later I realized I had completely
misunderstood part of the plan. The editor was less than ecstatic, but thankful
I contacted her in time to fix the article.
If you discover an error in your article, the
key is acting fast. Contact the editor immediately, explain what is wrong with
the article, and how to make it right. Let an editor know when you can't fix a
story, so he or she can replace it with something else from someone else.
Admitting your mistakes may cost you one paycheck. Ignoring errors, allowing
them to cause problems for a publication, will cost you sales at every
publication that editor talks to.
Whether you misspell, misquote, or completely
get the facts wrong, the problem isnt just between you and your expert. There
is a publication to deal with, editors to apologize to, explanations to keep at
home, and a whole lot of responsibility to accept. Your interview subject might
not forgive you, but your professionalism can keep you working.
© Copyright 2002, Hilary Evans
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