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Five Ways to be a Rock Star Fact Checker

Five Ways to be a Rock Star Fact Checker

by Jake on May 24, 2010

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One of the reasons we’ve created this blog is because Ghostwriting is one of those get thrown in the deep end kind of jobs. There’s no university or vocational program that can prepare you for working as a ghostwriter. The only way you learn is by doing—often very clumsily at first.

For those of us who’ve taken the hard knocks along the way, I think it’s important to share those lessons with up-and-coming ghostwriters. Most likely they’ll still make the same mistakes, but at least they’ll be able to look back and say, “Ah! That’s what you were talking about.”

One of the biggest lessons I learned on my first big contract with an author whose book was picked up by a major publisher was the importance of fact checking. Once the publisher pressed me on a few claims given to me by the author, I realized that much of what an client serves up as fact is wrong at best and distorted at worst.

Since then, I’ve had a hard-and-fast rule: Don’t trust anything your client claims as fact at face value. Always fact check.

Fact check everything, including direct quotes from newspapers and magazines. Don’t trust that your client took the time and care to get it right. Clients don’t (generally) get it wrong on purpose, but they just have other things to do. That’s why they hired you. They think in ideas and concepts, not in minutia. That’s your job. Well, both are your job…but the minutia is especially your job.

Along the way, I’ve picked up some neat tricks to make you a great fact checker—and a fast one.

Google Books

When I first started working with editors at publishing houses, I learned that the magic bullet for any fact-checking questions was to prove it was already printed in another book. There’s something you have to understand about publishers. They’re less concerned with the fact being true than they are about being legal liable for the claim that it is fact. If something is already published, they’re most likely off the hook legally.

With that in mind, I found the ability to search Google Books to be invaluable. When you have a quote attributed to a person or author but no reference from a client, simply type it into the search engine of Google Books, and if you’re lucky, you’ll find it already printed in another work. From there you can get all the book’s publishing information for citation, refine the quote, and look like a rock star.

It’s a pretty nifty trick that makes you look much more well read than you probably are.

Wikipedia

For general research and fact checking, I love Wikipedia. I don’t actually use the articles themselves. No self-respecting publisher will accept Wikipedia as a source. But I love the general overview it gives me, and even more importantly, I love the citations at the end of each article.

Often I skip down to the bottom of a Wikipedia article to find references to books, articles, and PDFs with a wealth of information that can be used to verify facts for the project I’m working on. It’s much more efficient than spending hours trudging through search engines. I think of Wikipedia as my own research assistant.

FactCheck.org

Every once and a while, I’ll come to the end of a search having been unable to verify a fact. If it’s not a vital bit of information, I usually delete it. But if I think it’s a fact that should stay in the book, I’ll shoot off an email to FactCheck.org. There’s nothing quite so satisfying as being able to push the burden of fact checking off to someone else—and for free.

Become a master searcher

One of the easiest ways to become a great fact checker is to simply get intimate with your favorite search engine. When my client has a quote from a publication like say The New York Times or Newsweek, I simply copy and paste that quote into Google and hit search. Often the article will show up on the first hit. I do this because the quote is often almost correct—but not quite. Usually it will be copied down in a hurry and a word or two will be wrong. By going to the source, I can get the quote correct and keep angry publishers at bay.

I also use Google for a number of other simple searches to verify numbers and statistics by entering a few choice keywords. I honestly don’t know how people lived without search engines. I must have been a dreary existence.

Take your time

This one comes from Mary Ward in a guest post over at a great writing blog called Write for Your Life. And it makes such great sense. The first key to becoming a great fact checker is to take your time and read slowly enough to recognize things that need to be fact checked in the first place.

You need to train your mind to always be looking for unverified claims. To put it bluntly, you need a well-refined bull-crap catcher. Read suspiciously. Question everything. And do so slowly and methodically. By doing so, you’ll save face for your client and yourself.

OK. So now it’s your turn. What are some ways you keep up your rock start fact checker status?

 

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