Fact-checking your work

Accuracy is very important, especially in non-fiction writing, so making sure your facts and figures are correct is vital.

Fact-checking is best approached once the book has been through the editing process to ensure you are not wasting time checking facts you are not going to include.reference-books-x600

Fact-checking does not just mean making sure every statistic or nugget of information in your book is correct, it is also about checking the spelling of names, places and titles.

You would be surprised how many times you think you know how something is spelt and then you check it and find you were wrong. Spiderman once tripped me up, I was sure it was spelt as one word but when I checked with Marvel I saw it is actually Spider-Man – and this reminds me to check EVERYTHING even if I think I know how to spell it!

To check spellings the best way is to copy the word from your manuscript and paste it into Google (that way you can ensure you are not entering a different spelling from the one in your text). Generally there will be a consensus on a spelling but some names, especially those translated from a different script can have a number of spellings and the best bet is to go with the spelling used by an august institution or trusted source such as the BBC.

For facts, such as statistics, the best way to confirm them is to go right back to the source of the data. Ignore articles that are regurgitating the information and find the actual press release or dataset from the source of the information to confirm you have the correct numbers.

If you are publishing any tables or graphs I find it helps to print out my version and the source and then tick each correct figure against the source  – sometimes looking at these things on paper is easier than on screen and by keeping the print-outs you can easily go back and reassure yourself you have accurate data.

If you are checking dates, such as birth and death dates, again the Internet is the quickest method. Put the dates and name into Google and then make sure what you have is agreed by at least three reliable sources (Wikipedia does not count I’m afraid). Reliable sources mean organisations and institutions, scholarly articles, reliable encyclopedias such as Britannica and quality newspapers.

If you come across a lovely fact you are desperate to use but cannot find a second source you can still use the fact as long as you qualify it by noting in your work where you found it and that it is unverified.

The problem with fact-checking is that sometimes you just have to take a position because there can be debate over the exact spelling of a name or the location of somebody’s birth. In this case it is worth noting in your introduction that you have gone to every effort to ensure accuracy but that some facts included therein may be open to dispute.

Errors can creep in but to feel confident you are producing the most accurate work you can the best advice I can give is to check everything, even things you think you know, because you would be surprised how often this sieves out errors.

Advertisements

Research skills for nonfiction books: My top six tips for library research

Libraries are still the best place for quality research. Nothing beats sitting in a nice quiet reading room with a pile of"British library london" by Jack1956 - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:British_library_london.jpg#mediaviewer/File:British_library_london.jpg useful books for getting your teeth into a subject. But sometimes it can be hard to know how to find the right books and how to use libraries to your best advantage. The following tips should help you to make the most of libraries.

I would recommend completing some basic online research on your chosen subject first as this will help you to find key texts, identify experts in the field and provides a host of useful starting points.

Once you have a list of books and authors to explore the first stop should be identifying which library to attend. Your first stop should always be your local central library. Search their catalogue online and if they have the books you require then this is the most sensible option to use as you can borrow the books to use at home.

If your needs are not met by your local library then you may want to try one of the legal deposit libraries such as Cambridge University Library, the Bodleian in Oxford or the British Library in London. These are huge libraries with an astounding range of books and articles and are the best places to do some serious research, however they are not obliged to let you use their services so you usually need to speak to reader services to see if you can obtain a reader pass.

I am lucky enough to have a reader pass for the British Library (obtained in my case by having a letter from my publisher confirming I was researching a book) therefore the advice here relates to my experience at the British Library but hopefully it can be applied to other institutions.

It is always best to pre-order books before your visit so as to maximise the amount of reading time when you arrive. At the British Library books cannot be taken out but must be read in one of their many reading rooms.

If you already have a list of books and authors then it should be fairly straightforward to look them up in the online catalogue and reserve them. The complication arises when you are looking up specific information but have no idea which books to use.

As an example for my latest book How to Skin a Lion I wanted to look up… how to skin a lion. In order to find accounts of this skill I needed to find books on the wider subject of big game hunting. So I searched for books on this subject and then refined my search to titles about countries in Africa (where lions would have been hunted). I was ideally looking for colonial era books so I further refined my search by date.

This brought up a modest number of books in the catalogue which I then discounted or ordered depending on the title. It is always somewhat of a gamble ordering books this way but I find that by ordering the maximum ten books every visit I end up with enough gems to have made my visit fruitful.

When I get my pile of ten books I generally have a quick look at them and you can usually see quite quickly which will be most useful. I then work through the books in order using the contents page and index to find relevant passages and if a book is especially interesting I will see if it contains a bibliography so that I can find more books to consult.

Good researchers are like detectives, noticing references to other authors and following one lead to another. Researching is like picking up scattered jigsaw pieces and fitting them together until you have fashioned a whole picture.

It is very important that information taken from books but re-written in your own words are referenced in the bibliography, whereas quotations must include a page number so that readers can refer to the source themselves if interested. Collecting references for your bibliography is best done as you go along as there is nothing worse than realising you have forgotten to properly note down page numbers and having to go back to try and find them retrospectively.

My top six tips for library research:

  1. Do an online search of your subject first to give you background information and note down references to books, authors or experts.
  2. Look up these books, authors and experts on your local library’s catalogue. Reserve any with potential.
  3. If your local library draws a blank, investigate if you can get a reader pass at a legal deposit library.
  4. Use the online catalogues to identify books you want to consult – it always helps to demonstrate to reader services that you have specific books in their collection that you wish to peruse.
  5. If you are looking for specific information but do not know of any books that cover that area then try searching for wider search terms e.g. if you are looking for information on the origin of Baa Baa Black Sheep try widening the search term to nursery rhymes or folk tales.
  6. Always collect full references for your bibliography as you go along.

List of UK legal deposit libraries:

Bodleian Library, Oxford

Cambridge University Library

The British Library

National Library of Scotland

Library of Trinity College, Dublin

National Library of Wales

How to find an agent or publisher for your book

Now you have written your proposal it is time to think about whether you want to approach an agent or publisher direct. If you haven’t written your proposal see my blog post on How to write a non-fiction book proposal.magnifyx600

If you are in the UK the Writers and Artist’s Yearbook contains lists of agents and which areas they are interested in. Initially think about finding just a handful of agents who you think have similar subjects or authors on their books, you can usually find a list of clients on their website. Then look at their website, study their submission guidelines and adapt your proposal accordingly.

It is vitally important to tailor your proposal individually to each agent you approach as they will not read a proposal that does not meet the requirements set out on their website. When writing to agents they often like to know who else you have approached so that is why it is important to be selective and carefully target agents you think might have an interest in your book.

An agent is great if you have a very commercial book as they can contact the largest publishers on your behalf and ensure you get a great deal (although remember they will be taking a cut!). But do bear in mind that agents may not be interested in a more niche title and therefore you might be better served to approach a suitable publisher directly.

If approaching publishers directly, again find out which publisher handles books similar to yours. There is no point approaching a publisher if they clearly state on their website that they do not accept submissions – some publishers will only deal with agents. However if they are currently accepting proposals find their submission guidelines online and adapt your proposal to fit. Try and find the name of a relevant editor so that you are addressing your letter to an actual person.

Some publishers prefer you to send a query letter first, which is a short letter outlining your book idea and your credentials with an offer to send the full proposal if they are interested. If you have any existing contacts in the publishing world it might be worth sending them a query letter first as they may be able to pass you onto a suitable editor.

Don’t be discouraged by rejections, everyone gets knocked back at some point. If there is constructive criticism, take it on board and try again. However if every reply is a firm no, perhaps it is time to reconsider your idea or come up with a new one.

I had three ideas rejected by a number of agents and publishers before I finally found the right book for the right publisher. Rejection is tough but I learnt so much just from writing my proposals and going through the process.

Being a writer requires you to grow a tough skin as by its very nature you are offering your ideas up for judgement, the skill is to learn something from every rejection and use it to get better. Good luck!