Monday, August 25, 2014

An Actual Fact: 4 Ways You Can Find One (and a Fact about Mary Tyler Moore)



In the chick flick Runaway Bride, a reporter played by Richard Geer is asking someone who knows the oft-engaged character played by Julia Roberts for some information. As the woman explains a few realities to him, she says something like, “It’s a fact. An actual fact.”

Mary Tyler Moore
Maybe this scene is memorable for me because the actress makes those lines funny. Or maybe because a fact would have to be actual to be, well, actually factual, and as an editor I would question using that phrase. But it does make me think about how much writing and editing require fact checking.

Most often, when I am editing I'm checking for proper name spellings—for a person, organization, movement, brand, and so on. Or a poison in a murder mystery, which would raise some eyebrows for anyone looking at my Internet search history. Sometimes I need to check a word I never heard of, which might mean looking at an online dictionary that has words and sayings not yet (or will never be?) in mainline dictionaries. Quotes, including Scripture quotations, need to be checked as well. Authors at times quote Scripture from "memory" and don't quite get there.

And sometimes I wonder if an author’s fact is, in fact, an actual fact (sorry, I couldn’t resist) and so I look it up to make sure they're right. Usually the author is correct and I learn something new, but sometimes it is a good thing I did my job and checked.

I don't know if these are the same tips you would get in Fact Checking 101, but here are some of the tricks I suggest when using an Internet search engine like Google for your writing or editing:

  • Look for what is most likely the top reliable source. If someone or an entity has an official website, that is probably the best source for what is unique to them. For example, if you want to know the exact spelling and style for a nonprofit agency, look on their website. 
  • Use cover images when it comes to books. Authors (and their characters in novels) often quote from books. If you need to know the exact title of a book, or the exact order of the coauthors, find the cover's image on a seller's or the publisher's site and go with what you see. Even sellers and publishers sometimes get their data wrong, but cover images are rarely incorrect.
  • Take a propensity of identical answers into account. If you can find no definitive source but dozens of sources have the same information, then at least for consistency's sake consider if it’s safe to go with what appears to have become acceptable.
  •  Use the latest sources you can find. If you suspect you are dealing with an old wives' tale, look it up. Reputable sources have figured out the truth. When using news sources, compare dates for the same topic to help ensure your news is not old news. What are believed to be facts in 2013 can have been revealed as false by 2014.
I was hoping to find a clip of that "actual fact" scene in Runaway Bride, but alas, I could find only this YouTube post with Mary Tyler Moore singing “Actual Fact.” Without looking up a thing, I can tell you for a fact that she is one talented lady!

For readers, do you ever look up what you see in a book that does not seem right? Do you have an example?

For writers, what is your process for fact-checking your work? Can you share?

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