By Katherine Pickett
“A day of infamy.”
“Japan bombs Pearl Harbor.”
“An act of war.”
A book I copyedited a handful of years ago included these snippets from Franklin Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech, which was delivered the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. The author was setting the scene of a young boy listening to the radio as the speech was given, and he used these snippets to add authenticity. A nice touch, right?
The problem is that these brief quotes don’t actually appear in Roosevelt’s speech. Where the author had thought he was adding authenticity, in fact, he was showcasing poor research habits. If these errors had gone uncorrected, readers would have chucked the book and given it poor reviews.
Situations like this are not unusual. A few of my big catches over the years: a book that stated Babe Ruth was right-handed; an actor’s memoir that gave incorrect movie titles and locations; a novel that indicated Native Americans rode horses before the Europeans arrived. I found the correct information in these instances with very simple Internet searches—searches that the authors should have done themselves.
Remember, copyeditors are not fact-checkers. Sure, we do some double-checking of names and verify facts that look suspicious, but it is not the editor’s place to ensure a book’s accuracy. That is the author’s job. Expecting someone else to catch factual errors is an enormous risk that could damage your reputation. So don’t be afraid; dive in and investigate your topic! Then, make the most of your researching efforts to craft a more marketable book and save time and money in the process. The following five steps will help.
1. Establish a System for Recording Your Research
The precise system you choose for tracking your research should be whatever is comfortable to you. However, every system should include a few key elements. To begin, note the pertinent citation information for each source: author, book or journal title, article or chapter title, volume, issue number, publisher, city of publication, and year of publication. Then, with each quote or paraphrase, write down the page number where you found it. Indicate what is a direct quote and what is your interpretation, and double-check that you have transcribed your excerpts correctly. If any information is unavailable—for example, not all websites list authors—note that so you can easily answer that question should your editor ask.
It might not be obvious now, but tracking all of this information will save you time and money. With appropriate records, you will not have to spend time hunting down page numbers and names of publishers later on. Furthermore, you won’t have to pay an editor to look up or query all of that missing information. Good organization also helps if you want to write a follow-up book or a revised edition. Maintain a good research system and you will have saved yourself time, money, and maybe even a few steps toward your next book.
2. Use Reputable Sources
When you search the Internet, you may be tempted to go to the first website that comes up and use that as your source. This, however, is not always the best practice for finding the most accurate or respectable source. The top search result is usually Wikipedia, and although the information contained therein is often accurate, the incorrect material is not always easy to spot. What’s more, many readers do not respect Wikipedia as much as they do other sources, and your credibility — and, therefore, marketability — is at risk if it shows up in a reference section. Wikipedia is great for getting an overview of a subject, but you should always verify your facts by checking multiple sources.
3. Synthesize the Information You Have Learned
You have several pages’ worth of research ready to be used. Now it is time write, right? Not so fast. First you have to mull over this new information and figure out how to best integrate it into your manuscript. For nonfiction writers that means putting it in your own words and connecting the dots between various points of fact. In fiction it means massaging facts into the story line and using it to build your world and characters. As you write, be sure each idea flows neatly into the next. This often means performing several revisions until the writing is seamless.
If you research while you write, you must take additional measures to guard against plagiarism. You may be tempted to copy and paste the information you have uncovered directly into your document with the thought that you will rewrite it later. This is a fast track to trouble. To avoid plagiarism, keep your research and manuscript documents separate. Just as you cannot rush good writing, you cannot rush synthesizing good research. Take your time to work your research into your story and you will greatly improve the marketability of your book.
4. Don’t Try to Include Every Fact and Figure You Uncover
You’re excited about your topic, and you should be! But some authors are keen on including all of the information they have discovered since beginning their research. This happens in both fiction and nonfiction, and it does them no favors. Although you may be fascinated by a topic, the details may not be pertinent to the story you are presenting. In fiction this results in a lull in the plot while the reader tries to determine how much of this new information is relevant to the rest of the story. In nonfiction, it manifests as tangents and side topics that dilute the power of the argument. Liberally prune your research to maintain a tight story line and bold argument.
5. Brag About Your Astonishingly In-Depth Research
When it comes to increasing your book’s marketability, a major factor is letting people know what you have done. If you are pitching agents and publishers, you can include details about your extensive research in the query letter or proposal. If you are self-publishing, use your back cover copy and other marketing materials to trumpet your meticulous research. Why? Because if you don’t tell people what you have done, they won’t know they need your book. You’ve worked hard to make your book the best it can be, and you should tout these achievements. If you follow these five steps, you will have something to shout about!
Katherine Pickett is the owner of POP Editorial Services LLC and the author of Perfect Bound: How to Navigate the Book Publishing Process Like a Pro. Since 1999 she has edited more than 300 books in a wide range of topics and genres. She is an active member of the Editorial Freelancers Association and the St. Louis Publishers Association and is president of the Montgomery County chapter of the Maryland Writers’ Association. You can find her blog at www.thePOPnewsletter.com.