With the precipitous fall of the New Yorker‘s Jonah Lehrer, whose books and articles were riddled with inaccuracies, it’s clear that a quick way to ruin your career as a writer is to pass off fiction as fact. But as you put together a book based on reporting, the line between fact and fiction can blur.
It’s difficult to get all the facts right. Journalists write a piece then get fact-checkers to make sure they’re correct, or amend the facts. But for the writer who uses an open-publishing platform, the risks are magnified. You have to fact-check your own piece, and if you end up letting a few fabrications through the cracks, your entire career can be ruined.
In that spirit, here are some “Best Practices” for fact-checking your own writing:
1. Always get two sources. If you can find a fact or statistic once, you can probably find a different outlet to back up the same fact. It might seem like overkill, but even the most trusted sources get it wrong sometimes.
2. Wikipedia is a good resource! It might seem counter-intuitive to trust Wikipedia with facts, but the online encyclopedia has an insanely devoted group of volunteer editors who make sure that every fact is correctly sourced. Even better, they include links to the original sources on the bottom of every page, allowing you to find a more trusted source. It’s best to think of Wikipedia as a helpful tool, and not a definitive source.
3. Make the call. If you need answers about facts from specific individuals or organizations, call them. The Internet might be the repository of all things important, but at the end of the day, just calling someone can get you a lot further than endlessly scanning Google results.
4. Have a friend highlight. The best way to differentiate between something that should or shouldn’t be fact-checked is by having a friend or editor highlight all the facts in your piece. Often, when you’re close to a subject, you can’t tell the difference between what you know or what you think you know. A skeptical friend can be a writer’s best friend.
Starting with these four practices can help your writing become more accurate and also help you avoid the terrible fate of a writer who fabricates. Do you have any of your own best practices to add to the list?