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.
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.