During my editing career, I’ve corrected some significant factual errors in manuscripts before they were published — mistakes that would have compromised the authority of a book or a magazine or newspaper article, or at least embarrassed its author. (Aw, shucks, don’t mention it — it’s my job.) I’ve also probably overlooked a few.
And I’ve introduced some in my own writing: In one book review, I identified the author by the wrong first name. In another, I gave Canis domesticus as the scientific name for the dog. (It’s Canis familiaris, or Canis familiaris domesticus, or Canis lupus familiaris.) In a recent post, I relied on my very limited knowledge of French to address a comment to mon amis, rather than to mes amis. (My editor caught the two book-review errors, and a few of this site’s readers called me on the friendly faux pas, as some have done with other infelicities of mine.)
So it is as a sympathetic peer, not as a sneering superior, that I entreat you to practice due diligence in optimizing the accuracy of your writing.
Analyze Your Errors
Do you consistently make the same types of errors? Misspelling of people’s names? Erroneous wording of lengthy job titles or organizational names? Math mistakes? Record and tally your errors, and resolve to triple-check every instance in your problem area(s).
And don’t rely on the popular media for this information. Go to the source — an individual’s or organization’s website — or to a respected reference work. If you are math challenged, consult with a computationally adept ally.
Keep a Checklist
For every article or blog post or other piece of content you write, produce a checklist from a master template you keep on your computer or in your hard-copy files.
On this list, direct yourself to check names and titles of people, names and locations of places, URLs, numbers and math, and definitions and explanations. Verify quotes, and check for spelling and grammar errors (and for spell-checking errors).
When you interview or consult with someone, ask them to spell their personal information. (My surname is the least common of several variants, so I always spell it out over the phone without prompting. Many people with unusually spelled names do the same, but a surprising number don’t.) Confirm all other details and information with objective resources. Keep track of Web links and other access to information. And especially if you’re writing about recondite or controversial topics, ask people you interview to identify situations in which other writers introduced errors into their articles so that you can avoid passing fumbled facts along.
Delete Your Ego
How many of you have read an article about something you have inside knowledge about and noticed factual errors? I know I have. Understand that accuracy in reporting is a problem endemic to professional and amateur writing alike. But determine to be someone who does something about it.
Acknowledge and correct your errors. If your sources are unreliable (facts or findings contradict the prevailing understanding) or subjective (an expert spins facts to support their viewpoint), jettison them and obtain more reliable ones. Always verify. (Follow the time-honored warning to reporters: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”) And cultivate your skepticism; don’t let impressive job titles or institutional names or other trappings of infallibility distract you from seeking the truth.