Fact check to be safe

A few notorious books published as nonfiction in the last few years have brought to light a little known fact: Publishers don’t fact-check their books. They take their authors’ words for the truth. The latest brouhaha came in the spring over Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea. Mortenson and his coauthor allegedly stretched and fabricated the truth about building girls’ schools in Pakistan.

Beyond the ethics of nonfiction writing, Mortensen’s transgression points to a lesson for authors doing research: Don’t use any published document or book as if it were a primary source unless you double-check the facts.

For my own part, once I finish a manuscript, I email facts, quotes, and/or passages to all key sources to check. In my recent book, Merchants of Virtue, over half of the 47 people who responded submitted corrections. Some of the “corrections” struck me as preferences. Others related to minor facts—confirming a mug was plastic and not ceramic. But some related to critical conversations. In one case, despite a painstaking effort to get everything right, I had put quoted words in the mouth of the wrong person.

So what’s your responsibility as a book author? I believe this is a personal decision, and you should make it in advance of writing your book. What will you trust? What should you check?

If you don’t want to make a published mistake, go back to all interview sources and double check quotes, numbers, and the general veracity of what you’ve written.  Find a primary source to corroborate all secondary sources. Remember that even honest people often exaggerate or gloss over inconvenient facts. Double-check quotes even if you have recorded the interviews.

Gay Talese, one of the masters of nonfiction narrative, once said he never records a first interview. Why? Because people so often shoot from the hip, saying things they don’t really mean. What’s the use of a recording? He’ll go back a day or two later and, having taken notes on the trenchant quotes or anecdotes, ask his sources if they really meant it. A verbatim transcription of a source won’t help with getting the facts right if your source tells a tall tale.

When it comes to using secondary sources, remember that even reputable magazines and newspapers err or omit relevant facts (even publications like the New York Times and Fortune). It’s not a matter of dishonesty or carelessness. It’s that reporting free of errors or misimpressions is so hard. If a publication cites a case, a survey, or an expert’s testimony, get the original.

In The One-Minute Meditator, a book I co-authored with David Nichol, MD, we started one chapter with a quote we believed came from Henry David Thoreau: “The soul grows by subtraction, not addition.” A few months after publication, the curator at the Thoreau Institute at Walden Woods emailed me. He wanted to verify the origin of the quote, because he could not find it in Thoreau’s writings. I had to admit I hadn’t corroborated it. The staffer was able to verify the quote really came from Meister Eckhart, the 13th-century German mystic.

Egg on my face.

The lesson is that when you’re done with your manuscript, check everything.  Bear in mind that during editing, magazines and newspapers often “tidy up” the facts in a way that can leave out caveats. The facts that remain may come from sources who embellished or oversimplified. And the “facts” themselves, once published, take on a life of their own even if they are false: Their only source is endless repetition in cyberspace.

If you build a book on other people’s research and reporting, you’re likely to pay dearly when your “facts” crumble under cross-examination by astute readers.  Better to remain a skeptic about anything you read or were told. Budget time for fact checking to avoid embarrassment.


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