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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 didn’t 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 isn’t. 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 wasn’t one. Sometimes people are misquoted because of a miscommunication, and sometimes people are misquoted because it’s convenient for the author.

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 aren’t printed unless there are major mistakes. You can let your interview subject, and your editor, know there was a problem and why it happened. Don’t 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 don’t like what we’ve said in the past. Don’t 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 isn’t 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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