Who Owns the Fact-Checking Problem?

You may have heard about the controversy that erupted earlier this week over reported inaccuracies in Jill Abramson’s soon-to-be-published Merchants of Truth, billed by its publisher as “the definitive report on the disruption of the news media over the last decade”—and given that Abramson was the former executive editor of the New York Times, most of us would’ve been inclined to take Simon & Schuster on its word there, right? Me too, until I saw a tweet from Arielle Duhaime-Ross, the environmental science correspondent for HBO’s VICE News Tonight.

“I don’t usually do this — and honestly never imagined I’d need to,” Duhaime-Ross wrote, “but I have to do a bit of clarifying about myself and my professional qualifications.” In the series of tweets that followed, she detailed how the single paragraph of Merchants of Truth in which she’s mentioned was riddled with factual errors and misrepresentations. Not only had Abramson managed to create a falsely jejune portrait of Duhaime-Ross’s academic and journalistic career, she’d even managed to describe* her as a trans woman, even after Duhaime-Ross had carefully explained her queer, gender non-conforming (but cis) woman* during their interview.

Other people who were mentioned in the book came forward to describe how Abramson had gotten facts about them wrong, too. For her part, Abramson argued that everybody was quoting from the advance reader’s copy (ARC), which has a standard disclaimer—essentially, we’re not done editing the book yet, so wait for the finished copy before you quote anything. The finished book, Abramson implied, would not contain all these errors.

This happens to be an area in which I have some expertise, as both an author of a nonfiction book and a former acquisitions editor for a book publishing company. So I can tell you that Abramson’s statement is accurate as far as it goes: Yes, the early version of a book that’s sent out to reviewers is often run off the manuscript before it’s been copyedited, so there are likely to be some differences between that book and the final version that’s sold in stores.

Those differences, however, are usually quite minor. The copyeditor might suggest some grammatical refinements, some closer adherence to AP or Chicago style, some small corrections. The undoubtedly accidental reference to “Charlottesville, North Carolina” that someone else pointed out in the ARC of Merchants of Truth is exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about here. You’re writing a book pegged to current events under a tight deadline, you make a couple dumb mistakes, your copyeditor catches them, and you shake your head ruefully and consider yourself lucky to have people looking out for you.

A copyeditor is not a fact checker, but any copyeditor worthy of the name is going to catch an obvious error like “Charlottesville, North Carolina.” A really good copyeditor will spot subtler errors, like, for example, a passage in a novel describing a character driving a car uptown on Lexington Avenue. An excellent copyeditor would see a reference identifying Arielle Duhaime-Ross as a “trans woman,” and decide that if Jill Abramson thought that was a detail worth mentioning, it’s a detail worthy verifying. And when that proved inaccurate, an excellent copyeditor might start picking at some of the other threads in that paragraph…

So, speaking from my editorial perspective, if a copyeditor came back to me outlining a level of inaccuracy such as Duhaime-Ross described in her thread, I would be livid. I mean, if you can’t even bother to get the gender presentation* of someone you’ve met and had a conversation with right, let alone the details of her CV, I’d have to ask myself whether I can trust any of the reported details in the manuscript. And that’s obviously not a position you want to be in as an editor, especially not an editor who paid as much for a book as Jill Abramson’s editor did.

The copyediting stage of the production cycle isn’t designed for major rewrites to correct massive inaccuracies. For one thing, if you do a major rewrite after a copyedit, guess what you have to do next? That’s right: Another copyedit, which eats up time on the production calendar, as well as money that the publisher has to pay to the freelance copyeditor. (You didn’t think that was a staff position, did you?) So if you find yourself having to “fix” your reporting that late in the game, it’s because you seriously screwed up back at the beginning.

The thing is, when you sign a contract with a publisher for a nonfiction book, there’s usually some clause in there to the effect that you’re promising the publisher everything in the book is factually accurate. The burden is on you, not on them.

Whenever something like this Jill Abramson brouhaha happens, people inevitably start asking, “Well, why isn’t the burden on the publisher? Why doesn’t the publisher fact-check a book before publishing it?” The obvious answer is that most publishers don’t want to spend the money. They don’t want to pay for a freelance fact-checker on top of the freelance copyeditor they’re already paying for, and they definitely don’t want to put a fact-checker on staff and have to deal with benefits and all that stuff.

Furthermore, in those rare cases when a book’s inaccuracies are so flagrant or pervasive (or both!) that it blows up and becomes a media thing, it’s always the author who takes the hit to his or her reputation. It’s the author who may have trouble selling another book, who’s held up to nostalgic ridicule in the media when they do manage to make a comeback. The publisher doesn’t suffer any serious long-term consequences, so it’s not really worth it to do much more than the minimum to not find themselves in such a situation.

Part of me finds that outrageous, part of me wants to believe that publishers should be more accountable, should at the very least hold themselves more accountable, for the accuracy of what goes out under their imprimatur. As an editor, however, I know that I did, in fact, care about publishing good, accurate nonfiction, and that as I read and reread manuscripts, I did everything I could within the material constraints of the job to see to that accuracy. Realistically, though, those constraints often limited me to asking about things that felt distinctively “off,” and otherwise falling back on my default trust in authors caring enough about their subject matter to get it right.

And another part of me doesn’t have a problem with that. That part wants the author to accept the responsibility of getting the facts straight as a fundamental part of caring enough about a story to share it with the world. It’s a cliché, but if a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right. And I say this as somebody who wrote a book with a few glaring mistakes that none of us caught, mistakes that made it into the published version, that still make me feel a twinge of embarrassment when I remember them more than a decade later.

(Thankfully, I don’t usually remember them much anymore, except when I’m thinking my way through essays like this one.)

(And it wasn’t anything as awful as messing up someone’s gender presentation*, more like putting an actor in the wrong role in a fifty-year-old movie. As I say, embarrassing.)

Does that mean authors should have to shell out the money for freelance fact-checkers? Well, just where do you think that money’s going to come from? Sure, if you received an advance on the level of Jill Abramson’s reported $1,000,000, you might have enough on hand to pay somebody to go through every line of your manuscript. Most of us, though, are just going to have to do the best we can as we go along… which we should be doing anyway, right?

I mean, I’m repeating myself now, but if you’re going to write about other people, you want to be honest and accurate about them, right? Unless, I suppose, you’re perfectly happy to twist the facts to conform to a story you’ve already constructed in your head. But I’m not really equipped or inclined to talk somebody through that…

LET’S WORK: I’m putting together my editorial calendar for 2019, so if you’ve got a fiction or narrative nonfiction manuscript, I’m ready to provide constructive feedback on where your attention should be focused in the next draft. I can read the entire manuscript, or just the first fifty pages, and then tell you what’s working, and where I think changes might make the manuscript more distinctive to agents or editors. You have a story you want to tell; I want to help you tell it.

(Coincidentally enough, if you follow that link, you’ll see that I do explicitly say that I’m not a fact checker; “unless I spot an obvious error,” I write, “I assume you know your subject, and my goal is to establish whether you’re writing about it clearly.”)

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*EDITS: Originally, I referred to Abramson’s labels for Duhaime-Ross as a “misgendering,” but shortly after this was first published, the issue was clarified for me. Although Abramson’s reference to Duhaime-Ross as a trans woman rather than a gender non-conforming woman was inaccurate, that’s a misread of her gender presentation, not of her gender identity. So I’ve made a few minor tweaks to the original language to more accurately that situation.

Set Aside Your Ambitions for the Year Ahead

Happy New Year! You might have been spending the last few days reviewing what you’ve accomplished in 2018, and looking ahead to what you’d like to do in the year to come. (Especially those of you who joined this newsletter during National Novel Writing Month!) In doing so, it’s practically inevitable that you’ll end up comparing yourself to other writers. Maybe it’s one of the other members in your writing group, some novelist who got profiled in some magazine you like to read, or a bestselling author that you follow on Twitter who always manages to be dazzling, even when she’s telling the world how far behind she is on her copyedits.

As those last two examples suggest, and the first one might as well, those kinds of comparisons often shake out with you on the losing end.

So stop making them.

One of the things I decided to do during the holiday week was to finally finish reading a book that had been kicking around my office for the last six years, Sakyong Mipham’s Running with the Mind of Meditation.

Mipham is a marathon runner as well as a meditation teacher*, so the basic gist of the book is that the discipline of becoming a good runner is similar in some respects to the discipline of becoming a good meditator—cultivating a self-awareness of your body in the same way you cultivate a self-awareness of your mind, that sort of thing. This is one of the passages that jumped out at me as particularly helpful:

“When ambition is our main motivation, it throws us out of balance. Running on self-worth completely eliminates the need to become overly arrogant and put others down when they aren’t running on our level. We save energy that way. Self-worth even allows us to appreciate the talents of other athletes without feeling threatened by them.”

This felt like an excellent distillation of a principle that I’ve frequently cited in talking about the writing life over the years. Namely, that this isn’t a competition. You’re not working on your writing so you can craft better sentences and receive better reviews than John Doe, or get a better book deal, or sell more books—or at least you shouldn’t be. I mean, you could probably do any of all of those things if you set your mind to it, but those aren’t the markers of success you should be focused on.

You certainly shouldn’t be focused on them from a mindset where your success is dependent on outperforming any other writer, as if there’s a finite amount of success available in the literary world and you need to grab it before somebody else does. Publishing is not a zero-sum game. There’s room for plenty of people to succeed on those terms, and while there will obviously be quantitative differences between one writer’s success and another’s, you don’t need to fixate on them. You can be confident in what you’ve accomplished and have room left over to acknowledge, even admire, the accomplishments of others.

And “what you’ve accomplished” is, of course, more than just getting good reviews, or scoring a huge advance, or landing on a bestseller list. The success you really ought to focus on isn’t that success of ambition, but the success of self-worth. It’s the recognition that, by applying yourself to your writing practice, you’ve not only discovered something that means a lot to you that you want to share with the world, you’ve discovered how to share it in a meaningful way. You’ve realized something powerful within yourself—about yourself, even—and you’ve given it expression.

Don’t get me wrong: It’s fantastic to be able to do that and get thousands and thousands of people to buy into it. And it’s possible to get thousands and thousands of people to buy something totally market-driven that doesn’t actually come from the heart, too. Although I can’t imagine that it feels all that great, even as the checks come in. When you’re constantly writing to the market, after all, you have to continually second-guess yourself, wondering if you’re falling out of step with the trends. When you focus on listening to the still, small voice within yourself, though, you can always count on the results connecting with someone, somewhere down the line.

So, if you’ve been mentally sorting out what you’d like to accomplish with your writing practice this year… actually, if you want to focus on things like “this is the year I’m going to find a literary agent” or “this is the year I’m going to get a book deal,” well, those are things you should be thinking about at some point. Or “this is the year I’m going to pull the trigger on self-publishing,” that’s another big one. But you’ll have a better shot at fulfilling any of those goals if you can put the material markers of success out of your mind for a while, and keep two questions in mind: “Is this what I really want to say? And am I saying it in the clearest way I can right now?”

When you can answer both those questions with a confident, resounding “yes” on a regular basis, you might just find that other good things will start to follow.

Did you complete a novel-length manuscript in 2018? Congratulations! If you’re wondering if it’s strong enough to catch an editor’s or agent’s eye, or you know it needs a little more work but you’re not sure exactly what it needs, I provide editorial consultations on most types of fiction and certain narrative non-fiction formats. I can read your entire manuscript—or just the first fifty pages, if you’re not sure you’re ready for a full critique—and send you a detailed report; we’ll also go over that report, along with other questions you might have, in a phone call. Follow the link for more details, including my rates, and then email me to if you’d like to get on my calendar!

*I hadn’t realized when I plucked the book off one of my shelves that Sakyong Mipham is the Buddhist leader who fell into disgrace earlier this year after several allegations of predatory sexual behavior surfaced. I’d heard about those allegations when they came out, as anyone with at least a passing interest in meditation and/or the Buddhist publishing market did, but I didn’t pick up the book until several months later, and Mipham’s name didn’t leap out at me when I started reading, so it wasn’t until I Googled him, halfway through the book, that I connected all the dots. Anyway, I mention all this so that any of you whose initial reaction was “THAT guy?” know that I’m not ignorant of, or ignoring, the situation.

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