Fact-checking across the universe

One of the things I love about my job is the information-gathering aspect. I love snaffling up little factoids and random pearls of wisdom, which is just as well, because at times the task of editing falls squarely in the realm of fact checking.

In this case, it helps to love research.*

How much fact-checking a particular job may entail depends upon a great many things. Not least are the subject matter and genre, the style of publication, the expectations of author and publisher and, let’s not forget, the budget and deadline.

Different publications work in different ways and may have entirely different expectations. I have worked for magazines where the fact-checking portion of the sub-editing role could take days for a single travel article, such was the accuracy required. I would spend hours checking map books and atlases, perusing the internet, and finally on the phone to hotels overseas (in different time zones, speaking to people whose first language was certainly not English) confirming: the transfer vehicle was a coach and it was blue, the precise direction it took from the airport (including road names), the colour of the marble in the hotel foyer, the time at which the towels were put on the sun lounges around the pool, and the kinds of cocktails available in a bar.

And no, I am not exaggerating.

This contrasted mightily with a stint at a major newspaper, where I expected similar levels of checking would be necessary. Here timing was everything and journalists were assumed to have been correct in all details. In this particular department, sub-editors were not encouraged to check anything but major facts or obvious potential errors.

Books are different again.

The fact-checking element is slipped in wherever timing allows and is different probably for every book, never mind for every editor or publisher. And there are always facts to be checked, no matter how fantastical a tale the author has woven.

While non-fiction and academic works have obvious fact-checking requirements, I have edited crime novels that, for me, meant checking Tube stops and car park locations**, never mind murder techniques (and yes, I check those too, but not Dexter-style). I have researched Ninja weaponry on a surprising number of occasions*** as well as helicopter treads. I edit fantasy, which means ensuring that facts hold up within invented worlds – sometimes this means tracking back through an entire series to make sure the magic works as it should. And yes, I mean facts, as opposed to consistency; a subtle difference.

At the end of all this, my brain is usually bursting with information, none of which is any use to anyone, except possibly the author, who already knows far more about the topic anyway. I forget all of it before I can use it at a trivia night and nine times out of ten, everything was perfectly accurate in the first place.

But this is another one of those invisible jobs an editor does. Next time you pick up something to read, even if it’s just a quick flick through a magazine article, remember, not only did the author pour his or her heart and soul into the words on the page, but at least one editor probably spent countless hours double-checking the facts as well as the spelling.

*It is, admittedly, less helpful to get so involved in a topic that you veer off entirely and become, for one week only, a self-described expert on 16th century building materials when you only needed to know whether it was acceptable for an author to use that word once as a passing reference.

** All hail Google maps! (And, indeed, the interwebs in general.)

*** Seriously, when you combine some of the things I have had to research over time, I have to wonder if I am on a watch list somewhere. Although I am probably in good company, since I am checking other people’s work.

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