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The Fearful Frustration of Fact-Checking
by Martha Deeringer

As an inexperienced writer (not young, just inexperienced) I celebrated the acceptance of my first adult non-fiction article with jubilation. The article was extensively researched, each sentence revised and re-revised for the most possible impact. I thought that now that I had an acceptance letter clutched in my hand the time for jittery nerves was over. Without a second thought, I gathered up my resources, returned the borrowed books to the library and jammed the printed Internet pages into a folder labeled with the article’s carefully composed title. Whew! Time to start on the next project.

Months passed. Once again my office space (okay, the computer desk crammed into a corner of our bedroom) was littered with stacks of file folders, collapsing towers of books, scattered note cards, and sticky notes pasted in an artistic pattern on the wall behind my computer monitor. My mind had been transported into the past, where it lingered outside a tobacco barn surrounded by soldiers in pursuit of a dastardly presidential assassin. I was deeply involved in my current project. Then the phone rang.

It was my editor for the first accepted article. She wanted to fact-check it with me.

“Do you have time to do it now?” she asked politely.

“Sure,” I said, struggling to keep my voice from quavering. “Just let me dig the folder out of my file cabinet.”

Frantically, I pawed through the file cabinet drawers searching for the folder while my editor waited on the phone. The only sounds were the rifling of papers, and my ragged breathing as I thought about how much of the editor’s valuable time I was wasting. Naturally, the folder had migrated all on its own to the middle of the drawer. It didn’t help that only last week, I had read an article on organizational skills for writers and recognized my own need to bring order out of chaos.

“Okay, I’ve got it,” I panted, pushing stacks of stuff from my desk to the floor so that I could open the folder.

A half hour of tense moments punctuated by uncomfortable silences ensued, during which I shuffled through my disorganized papers like a Las Vegas dealer at a poker table. Six months had passed since I wrote the article. The nooks and crannies inside my head were stuffed with more recent information.

“And where did you find the quote in the third paragraph?” the editor wanted to know.

“Well ... uhm ... I think it was in the book Unsung Texas Heroes. I returned it to the library, but I can get it again to double-check the quote.”

Why hadn’t I copied the pages I used from each of the books so I wouldn’t have to make wild guesses about where I got each vital piece of information? Now that I found myself crouching in this corner, I realized that I should have thought of that.

My editor was extremely patient and taught me plenty about fact-checking during that first uncomfortable session. Here are some important lessons I gleaned from the experience:

  1. Print out every single source you use from the Internet even if you used only one insignificant detail.

  2. Highlight important quotes and facts you have used in the article so you can spot them quickly.

  3. Make copies of all pages from books that contain information you included.

  4. Using a copy of your article, number the critical facts in order from beginning to end.

  5. In your well organized folder, arrange the copies of your sources from earliest to latest according to when they appear in the article.

  6. At the top of each source of information, write the numbers of the facts you have used from that source.

Following these suggestions just might save you from the sweaty palms and elevated heart rate I experienced during my first non-fiction fact-checking session. It goes without saying that accurate research is the first commandment of good non-fiction writing, but you must also be able to point to the sources of the fascinating information that served you so well in making the sale.

My first editor was a paragon of patience. I’m sure there are editors out there who would have hung up on me in disgust, but she soldiered on until we got through it. The next day I raced to the library and copied the pertinent pages from the books I had used, highlighted the information she wanted, and sent them on to her by mail. I’m delighted to say that we have since fact-checked my second, third, and fourth articles together. You can be smarter and better organized than I was. Be ready to fact-check your accepted articles before your editor calls. Your blood pressure will reap the benefits.

© Copyright 2009, Martha Deeringer

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