“I found a problem,” the author called to tell me, his editor.
“Oh, crap,” I reply. This is not the discussion I want to have with any author.
Here’s the evolution of an editing error. I had worked closely with Mark Langan on his book More Busting Bad Guys — the second in a series of true crime stories of his life on the street as a police officer. We had organized the stories into chapters, and I had done two major editing passes. This after he and his wife, Annette, had read and reread the chapters many times.
H told the story about Sister Helen Prejean, the Dead Man Walking nun who doesn’t look at all like Susan Sarandon who played her in the movie. His chapter was about the death penalty. He heard Sister Helen speak at a local event. My proofreader found “Sister Jean Prejean” and marked it for fixing in the page proofs. Fixed!
Or so we thought. Dang. There was yet another instance of Jean instead of Helen, and all four us missed it multiple times. Why? Because we’re human. We make mistakes, and then we get too close to the material and our brains fill in what we expect to see.
Happily, Mark somehow saw the mistake or a friend saw it, and he texted me the offending page. I wanted to throw up. These aren’t mistakes we editors want to make. His book had not gone live on Amazon, and the mistake was easily corrected in new PDFs uploaded to Amazon’s KDP platform. Done and done. Until Mark (or his eagle-eyed readers) point out something else.
Did the world end because of that error? No. Will most readers see that error? No. Was the error a material breach of fact? No. An absolute error? Yes.
But what happens when there is an error that makes a difference?
Thomas Edison is quoted as saying something about people dying from a typo. And here’s the quirky part of that. I could not verify with the Edison museum archivist if Edison had said that quote at all, and that’s a lesson about fact checking for another day. Suffice to say, if you have critical life/death facts in your book that could harm someone if they are incorrect, hire a fact checker (a subset of professionals in the editing world) and make sure you are correct.
The worst error of fact in any book I have edited was in When the Mob Ran Vegas by Steve Fischer. A Las Vegas historian, Fischer wrote charming stories about the characters that shaped Vegas history. Howard Hughes played a huge role (in case you didn’t know), and myth and curiosity surrounded the billionaire who holed up in an entire floor of the Desert Inn (which he owned) for years. At one point, Hughes purchased a tract of land that was later to become prime real estate called Summerlin, and Fischer said this about Hughes:
Original: He did a nice thing for his elderly aunt, though. The Husite Property he had bought, the 27,000 acres of desert that the jackrabbits even thought was too far out, just before he left Las Vegas, he decided to rename that acreage after his favorite great aunt, Amelia Summerlin.
A year or so after the book came out, another Vegas historian politely emailed Fischer to say that the passage was not a correct reference to Hughes’s aunt but to his grandmother. Again, an error of fact that could have and should have been known to Fischer and fact checked before publication. The world didn’t end at that point either, and the error was corrected in the production file and reuploaded to Amazon, and subsequent printed editions are correct.
Corrected: He did a nice thing for his elderly grandmother, though. The Husite Property he had bought, the 27,000 acres of desert that the jackrabbits even thought was too far out, just before he left Las Vegas, he decided to rename that acreage after his grandmother, Amelia Summerlin.
What to fact check
Critical items that should be fact checked include names, spelling of names and places, dates, dollar amounts, dimensions, legal and financial details, and any piece of information that can be searched on Google.
It’s not that I should have caught the inaccuracy in the Howard Hughes relationship during my edit. I trusted the author to be correct. He is the expert. But I do like to check what I can easily find.
Where to fact check
I often have a browser window open to Google and find myself checking whether Coldplay is one word or two (it’s one), the spelling of Idlewild Airport (not Idylwild), a song title, the date an event took place, how far it is from Damascus to Paris, and what year Socrates died.
Wikipedia is not considered an authoritative source. Except you can look at the sources listed at the bottom of most Wikipedia entries and drill down to an original source, a journal article, a newspaper story (careful here because the newspaper article is not always the original source), a book by an authority, an online website owned by the movie star.
The biggest and most common errors I see in editing nonfiction are authors not correctly listing titles of books they are mentioning. People’s names are frequently misspelled, and, for the record, it’s Katharine Hepburn (with an a). Company names are misspelled too because so many use quirky capitalization, acronyms, and spacing.
With nonfiction, facts matter. Accuracy counts. Inaccuracy makes the author look unprepared and unprofessional.
Get the facts right when you write your first draft. And as a final self-editing preparation before you have your professional editor edit your book, take another, confirming fact-checking pass.
Refer to the checklist for authors in my book Cover to Cover: What First-Time Authors Need to Know about Editing for other items to check as you give your manuscript a final polish.