Did you know that at least five out of every ten people in the United States, Canada and Ireland, suffer from a form of "writewrong" dyslexia that actually effects their ability to write in cursive, from the left side of a sheet of paper to the right? Seriously, the only way they can scrawl it out properly is upside down.
You haven't? Well my neighbour told me her sister's boss' son suffers from it. Please, pass the info along.
Of course, if you do, and you believe what I just told you without a further look-see, you've fallen into a group I've labelled Dangerosious Guliblitis. A terrible condition especially for a writer, but one that may, luckily, be cured with a little know-how and work. It's a fact you can count on.
You know the saying you can't believe everything you see, hear, and read? Well, maybe you've guessed where I'm going. The problem is everywhere. On TV (drat those so far from reality court room dramas), in literary books that purport to be deeply rooted in reality (that's a shame), and even nonfiction (the worst offenders). After both practicing law and preaching it, I'm like an infrared radar when it comes to crap detecting. And a writer's laziness especially jumps off a page at me.
But it's pretty easy to fix. Really.
Artistic liberty aside, you still need to check yourself. Back it up. Start by writing whatever it is you write as accurately as you can. Then re-read it and try to identify and write down, anything you have questions about. In other words, anything that causes you even the slightest doubt.
You're main goal when it comes to fact checking (if you're aiming for any kind of realism), is to check for legitimacy. Secondary to that is accuracy. Because even if you're sure it happened, or exists, facts sometimes get twisted in translation.
If you have an idea but don't know where to start, research and fact check first. Just make sure to keep a record, or maybe a notebook of findings to refer to while you write. If you don't, you're likely to end up back at "start by writing what you want . . . ," which may not be a bad idea regardless.
While you write, watch for phrases like "always" and "exactly," unless you're "absolutely" sure something "always" happens "exactly" like you just said it does. Absolute words have a tendency to morph fact into fiction. Some of us call it creative license, others, irresponsible.
When you write about somebody real, it's sometimes helpful to keep a list of questions that the subject, his representative, or her estate can answer. With a little digging and a little more tenacity, non-fiction and literary subjects are often open to being interviewed, or at least answering a few short e-mailed questions.
Over time, it also helps to develop a contact list; sources you may have contacted in the past, or know you can contact and question in the future. These are people who can answer questions about anything from proper spelling to historical accuracy. And it could as easily include your grandmother, as your Stanford educated agent.
Also helpful - keep a list of any and all books, abstracts, and journals, and the like that you've read, or that you know of, which are likely to supply you with accurate factual information. Likewise, keep a list of links and websites you've visited. Just make sure you trust both the website and its information. Good bets are government sites, universities and grant funded organizations. I have come across wonderfully quirky, and extremely helpful amateur pages that I'll forever cherish. However, make sure to do a little extra follow-up after visiting these sites to ensure you're not being hog washed.
When it comes to recounting stories akin to urban legends or cultural myths, read multiple books and visit multiple websites, then compare versions. Of course legends and myths tend to vary from cultural group to storyteller. And you have a lot more leeway when it comes to events and people that are (mostly) factually impossible to qualify. So in these cases, you may want to aim more for accuracy than veracity.
Be a wordsmith! Language may gussy up writing, but not when it's used improperly, or out of context. The wrong word can fundamentally change the meaning of a sentence or paragraph. Crosscheck, look for the word in use in books and newspapers, look it up in a dictionary and thesaurus, and don't ever assume because it sounds good, that it makes sense. You know the saying about assuming . . . .
For now, that's it. Join me again next month, for still more on the merits of fact checking, and the fascinating world that is research.
Jennifer Edelson is a former practicing Minnesota attorney, now regular IN columnst, freelance writer and legal writing professor. Her writing has appeared on all the finest refrigerators in the Twin Cities. Jennifer can be emailed at: firstname.lastname@example.org