Present Your Facts in a Credible Way

Ideally you will have checked all your facts before you started writing. But when making a fact-checking editing pass, you can double-check. We leave this pass until after we’ve edited for voice, because in that pass we may have changed enough of the wording to require a second look at the factuality of our statements.

The facts employed are credible and enhance the purpose or story.

When I say “credible” what I mean is that the fact or statistic is presented in a way that encourages the reader to believe the author has really done their homework. Here’s a noncredible way of presenting a “fact” about divorce:

It’s well known that half of all marriages end in divorce.

Simply stating that something is “well known” is not a citation. Plenty of “well known” things prove to be untrue. Here’s the credible way to present the same fact:

Data from National Vital Statistics System shows that in 2012, the most recent year for which statistics are available, the U.S. marriage rate was 6.8 per 1,000 people, while the divorce rate was 3.4 per 1,000 people. That’s down from a divorce rate of 3.7 in 2002.

The goal is to get to a primary source—an agency or researcher that has collected direct and specific information about the subject.

ticked-checkbox-Gary Mcinnes

If a fact like this is included in your book, it should support your purpose, and not merely be thrown in to pad your word count or because while looking for one thing you came across something else that was interesting. Those kind of findings make for good blog posts, but they don’t necessarily belong in your book unless they support your theme or premise. Especially in prescriptive nonfiction, we don’t want to distract the reader with irrelevant data.

Sufficient support is given where needed.

I have seen manuscripts and even published books where statistics are thrown in or alluded to without back up. Or if support is given, it’s insufficient—say, a Wikipedia citation. Don’t use Wikipedia for anything you’re going to stake your reputation on.

Besides, quoting from Wikipedia, even with attribution, is a bad idea not only because is it notoriously unreliable, but because their copyright policy is so strange. Wikipedia’s copyright notice says each article’s copyright belongs to its authors, but any article may have multiple authors.

One thing Wikipedia is good for is giving yourself background information about a subject you are unfamiliar with. At the bottom of each article is a list of “External Links” that will usually be authoritative. Use those sources.

Providing credible data and sufficient support means going to primary sources for your information as much as possible. Use Encyclopedia Britannica or another respectable, vetted secondary source if you must (use your local library if you don’t want to pay for a Britannica subscription). But the more you use primary sources, the better. Best of all is when you are the primary source.

Ensure Your True-Life Anecdotes Are Really True

We finished the Voice section of the Elements of Nonfiction Editing Checklist, and now we move on to Information. You might think the information would come first—and it does, when you’re writing. This part of the editing process is an opportunity to double-check your facts.

Writers and motivational speakers often use true-life anecdotes to illustrate a topic, and this is a great tool. But of course it’s better if the true-life anecdotes really are true. Too often people don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.

Any anecdotes presented as true stories have been verified.

One plum people pull out to show you shouldn’t be discouraged by failure is the one about how an inventor was supposedly trying to make a super-strong glue, but he failed—the glue turned out weak. He then converted his biggest failure into his biggest success by inventing the Post-it Note.

A good story, but not true.

The truth is less dramatic, but no less inspirational: Spencer Silver, a chemist at 3M, discovered a low-tack glue in 1968, but he and his colleagues couldn’t come up with any marketable applications, so it was shelved. A few years later, one of those colleagues—Art Fry—realized Silver’s temporary adhesive would hold bookmarks in place. After some brainstorming, the company came up with Post-it notes and other products using the glue.

Post-It Note Inventor

Silver and Fry are featured on the Post-it anniversary page • Photo illustration courtesy 3M

Silver’s original project was only a “failure” in that initially they couldn’t think of a market for it. Jim Collins and Jerry I. Porras include the story in Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. They emphasize that Silver wasn’t looking for anything in particular. He was “following the principle of ‘experimental doodling,’” something 3M encourages. He was playing around to see what he could find.

The Post-it story is a good one. But, as Collins and Porras make clear, what it illustrates is the need for companies to foster creativity and allow risk-taking.

The “super-strong glue” story isn’t the only falsehood I’ve seen propagated by people seeking to inspire. But if we “don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story,” we risk damaging our own credibility. When a reader discovers an error of fact in your book, he begins to question everything you have to say. Because if you couldn’t be troubled to look this up (seriously, the true story is just a Google away), then what else in your book is wrong?

So verify. If you’re using an ostensibly true story about a real person, place, or product, do your research. Because I believe if you’re going to use a true-life anecdote to make your point, it really should be true.

Write With Clarity

When writing for a general audience, we want to ensure that the language we use is clear—the opposite of the kind of bafflegab we looked at earlier.

Language is clear and vocabulary is appropriate to the audience.

The key to keeping your language clear is ensuring that everything can be understood in context. This often requires a careful balance between the concrete and the abstract. Information technology solutions is an abstract. Computer networking hardware is slightly more concrete. Better still is devices that connect your computer to the Internet. Continue reading

Engaging Prose is Active and Varied

To keep readers engaged with the text, use strong nouns and verbs to construct active sentences. Which isn’t to say every sentence must be in the active voice.

The passive voice is used only when appropriate.

Writers are forever being told to avoid the passive voice.

You see the problem. Continue reading

Write Brightly, but with Restraint

As writers, we want to create strong mental pictures and evoke powerful emotions. Even if your writing is prescriptive rather than narrative, you want to give readers a clear idea of your concepts.

☐ The writing is illuminating and vivid.

The foundation of vivid writing is strong nouns and verbs. People doing things. The next important element is using precise words. It’s one thing to write about a girl riding a horse. It’s another to write about a twelve-year-old waif riding an elegant palomino. Continue reading

Keep Your Writing Voice Informal

The best journalism, business, and academic writing is as eloquent and enjoyable as the best writing in other genres. Unfortunately, most people do not produce the best writing. Most people produce adequate writing. Since you aspire to be a writer, I trust that regardless of the field in which you write, you are striving to be among the best.

If most of your writing has been done in academia, business, or journalism, you may need to work on loosening up your style if you’re now writing for the general market. There, a casual tone is preferred to the formality often found in other realms. You do need to adjust the level of formality based on your personal style and your audience expectation, but generally speaking, modern readers of general-market books are not looking for a highly formal tone. Continue reading

Use an Authentic Writing Voice

Write the way you speak, only with more polish.

You may need to unlearn a lot that you learned in college about writing. Teachers teach academic writing, which tends to be dry, fact-focused, and concerned more with making a point than crafting elegant sentences.

The narrative voice draws the reader into the text.

The author’s voice and approach are fresh.

To develop an authorial voice that is engaging and fresh, imagine you are writing a letter to your reader. Continue reading