Last March, an article I wrote about the spread of Asian carp in U.S. waters appeared in the journal BioScience. A month later, the editors received a letter from a fisheries biologist in Europe. It turns out I’d committed the cardinal sin of good journalism – I’d gotten my facts wrong or, in this case, my fish switched.
It turns out that sauger (a type of fish closely related to walleye) is only found in the U.S. In Europe, zander are what have been fighting with carp for food.
A minor detail? Tell that to a fisheries biologist. What’s more (and I can’t believe I’m admitting this) I later discovered I’d attributed a quote to the wrong source. I’ve never felt so ashamed in my writing career. Someone had hired me to do a job and now had to turn around and write a correction. Self-loathing washed over me, as well as disgust that my editor hadn’t caught these minor details.
Unfortunately, that editor was me.
While I’d gotten guidance from the folks at BioScience on the front-end of the writing process, when it came time for fact-checking and copy editing, the 3,000-word manuscript was back in my lap.
The problem with self-editing is that, by the time you’re finished with the process of getting to that final draft, you no longer see what you actually wrote. You see what you intended to write. To re-purpose a metaphor, the brain is excellent at seeing the forest and not the trees.
Here are a few tricks I learned the hard way to keep those nasty letters to the editor at bay.
- Finish well before deadline – This sounds like a no-brainer, but we writers are incorrigible procrastinators. If you slip a draft in right under deadline, you sacrifice valuable nit-picking (and fact-checking) time. Failing to invest in those final steps could ruin the work that came before.
- Finish well before deadline – This isn’t a typo. It’s just worth saying again.
- Get another pair of eyes – I can’t stress this one enough. You will literally NOT SEE what you’ve written once you’re too far in to a story. A willing spouse, friend, or family member can help make sure “their” and “there” and “it’s” and “its” are all used appropriately.
- Read it out loud – A shout out to my amazing j-school professor Deborah Blum (really, it’s been six years!?). Reading aloud is an easy way to gauge the pace and coherence of your work. Does it drag? Jump between subjects? Make any sense at all? It’s amazing what you’ll hear that never showed up when you were just using your eyes to edit.
- Reach out to sources – I know. In a different day and age, this was a huge no-no. But, honestly, if you’ve got an assignment covering a field you would by no means consider yourself expert in, why not ask the experts if you’ve got basic facts straight? All of my BioScience sources would’ve caught the zander slip up. Besides, sources are great at clarifying points that make the final text more authoritative and, well, correct. Just let them know up front that you’re not going to make changes for style, or replace a great pithy quote with a more scientifically onerous one.
- Know your fish – Seriously, sauger? What was I thinking?
Photo by Lennix3 via Flickr