More about what makes a writer -- the absolute necessity of checking your facts
“It is perfectly okay to write garbage – as long as you edit brilliantly.”
There is something about the published written word that automatically imbues everything stated with a certain authority. Each of us should bear this in mind when preparing our articles, and certainly before publishing… anywhere.
Who hasn’t read an incorrect fact supporting a story? You know, a real whopper that leaves you scratching your head. The only thing that’s worse is if you wrote it yourself! Errors of fact can hurt a writer’s credibility and raise red flags about the validity of other information in an article. Or in any other article the writer has published.
Take it one step further. Publishing an article riddled with misinformation not only besmirches the writer’s reputation, but the publisher’s as well. If we post material, particularly material that purports to educate the reader, especially those articles written in encyclopedic style and we are wrong, what is the effect on the publishing site – Hubpages for example?
Do we not jeopardize the reputation of our site? Now, those doing research may say, ‘don’t use Hubpages as a source. They’re full of ****.” Now we’ve destroyed not only our own authority, but that of all the other writers on the site as well.
(And I do beg pardon of the writer of this article for using the instance, but it is such a real doozy, and so typical of the problem I simply had to. I mean no personal disrespect. Though I was completely taken aback.)
Or worse: imagine yourself an elementary student and as part of your homework you’re asked to write an essay on the country of Mexico. So you get on the computer, parental block and controls in place, and type in your query. “Tell me about Mexico.”
A recent Hubpages article comes up in the Google search, and you click on it.
The article begins: “Mexico is South America’s most northerly and largest country….”
You happily read through the article, which really is full of excellent snippets of history, culture and lovely photographs. The article itself is written like an encyclopedia, so full of facts, so full of information stated boldly, with assurance. Here it is, all your work done for you, so you scribble down the salient points and hand it in to your teacher.
This information took five seconds to ascertain
From the north of the continent, the countries that make up North America are:
United States of America
Antigua and Barbuda
St Kitts & Nevis
St Vincent and the Grenadines
Trinidad and Tobago
Those countries commonly referred to as Central America are:
Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama.
Unfortunately, your teacher knows Mexico is part of North America, always has been and unless there has been a major shift in tectonic plates which unhinged all of Central America and shifted Mexico down to sit beside Brazil (which, by the way, is considerably larger) still is. (See the map of North America to the right. Canada up top, United States of America next, then, Mexico, with a few islands to the east, and the countries commonly referred to as Central America make up North America.)
“But,” you cry, staring at your poor grade and all the corrections in red ink, “I found an article on Hubpages that said… “
You get the picture. What makes this story even worse is that I read this article and left a correction. With you, the little elementary student in mind, I said, “Oh dear. Mexico is part of North America which makes it the most southerly and smallest of the three major countries of that continent.” And left the little box checked that would inform me when next the moderator left a comment.
Before the moderator could do so, someone else commented, “Actually,
Mexico is part of Central America.” (Actually, Central America generally refers to those countries below the southern Mexican border, although some sociologists include the three most southerly Mexican provinces, including the Yucatan.)
Oh for crying out loud, I thought to myself, having lived in North America most of my life, both the top and the middle, and traveled all over it, including Mexico. I don’t believe this. Don’t these people have internet access, or even a half decent Atlas at hand?
Would you believe it, the moderator wrote back and said, “I have to disagree with you, Lynda. I’ve rewritten the opening to say Mexico is part of Central America.”
Of course! Don’t check your facts. Don’t go and look it up
so that the article you’re writing has some semblance of reliability. Heavens no!
That would be too much like a professional approach. Just jump to a conclusion
and write it in a published article that you’ve written to inform others. It would have taken thirty seconds to Google
the matter. And what disturbed me are all the lovely comments, "What an informative article." “Oh, I didn’t know
any of these facts before.” Well guess what; there's every possibility you still don't. That's what happens when we publish misinformation. It all becomes suspect.
Do I sound ticked off? Well yes, I am. Not because someone chose not to believe me; not for any personal feelings but for the sheer irresponsibility. When writing articles of this genre, accuracy of facts is of great importance. Who knows what uses this article will be put to?
The damage done goes well beyond the credibility of this particular article, or the other hundreds of similar articles written under the same name which now all come into question, or the writer but to the entire site and everyone writing here.
I recently wrote an article called what makes a writer in which I call for all of us to try and improve and grow in our craft, to not be satisfied with first-draft efforts, to proof-read, to learn the basics, but all of those things are in vain if our writing is poorly spelled, riddled with inaccuracies, or based on second-hand assumptions that will leave our audience misled, confused, or worse. If readers complain because they disagree with your opinion… well, that’s part of life, but if they complain because you have your facts wrong, that destroys your credibility as a writer. And the credibility of your publisher.
“My key piece of writing advice is look up everything,” says editor Cynthia Clampitt. “Writers should NEVER write what they think is correct without checking first. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen things come across my desk, in which a writer has written off the top of his or her head. The errors were horrendous. I’ve seen Mikhail Baryshnikov named as the president of Russia, penultimate used to mean “more than the best” (it means “next to last),” and more examples. I tell writers there are two things they need to look up: all their facts and all their words. Because if they don’t, the publication will look stupid.”
Hubpages is a site for amateur writers, this is true. It’s easy to tell ourselves I’m writing simply for the fun of it. I’m not paid (at least not directly.) I’m not professional and it’s only Hubpages, after all. What we publish here is strictly up to us. After all, we have no content editors. So what’s the harm?
I’ve already illustrated one side of the harm. Here’s the other:
Many writers here on Hubpages use this site as a personal publishing opportunity but write professionally elsewhere. I’m one of them and there are many others. For us, this place is fun, a social site, but more, a chance to write on those subjects we want to explore but seldom get paying opportunities. We are already aware of the necessity of fact-checking because we will be fired from the professional sites or print if we don’t. Oh yes, the professional publishing world has little room for someone producing erroneous writing.
Destroy the reputation of this site, make it an unreliable place to get information, and you ruin it for those who write here to produce a personal portfolio. Many of the other writing sites have already initiated standards as to the veracity of content for that very reason. Write rubbish and you’re off.
Hubpages allows the members to publish as they please. Fine when you’re writing opinion or personal observations, but when you’re writing to inform the reader, you owe it to them, to your own reputation, to the other writers here, to Hubpages and to the collected written works of the world to make sure you do inform, not misinform.
“Just about every prominent magazine, journal and book publisher employs legions of fact-checkers. These ranks of people spend hours going over the works of even the best writers with a fine-tooth comb. The need for correct facts is just as important in articles from members submitting their first piece to the myriad of online sites as it is for stories that appear in The Atlantic Monthly, Time, The New Yorker or Technology Review.” – S. Kleever, editor