Saturday, May 27, 2017

The ABCs of Book Writing: K is for KNOWING what you don't know . . .

Infographic for Weekly Blog Series on Book Writing and Publishing: K is for KNOWING what you don't know
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. . . and KNOWING to look it up.

Writers of expository nonfiction such as how-to and advice books generally do their research and get their facts straight. It is every bit as important for authors of creative nonfiction and fiction to look up what they cannot remember or imagine. Whatever you write, even if you are 99.9 percent certain that you know something, leave no room for doubt or error.

Look it up.

The importance of factual accuracy in expository writing, creative nonfiction, and fiction

It stands to reason that authors of textbooks, how-to guides, and advice books must aim for absolute factual accuracy, or their books would be worthless. A similar commitment to accuracy is also essential for writers of creative nonfiction and fiction. While most fiction readers appreciate an imaginative plot, many are also sticklers for correctness when it comes to the portrayal of real-life events, dates, geographic locations, professions, and specialized knowledge. If these readers find errors, they might be put off your writing for good.

For example, memoir writers need to verify the dates of their personal memories as well as events occurring in the world around them. Your memories are your own but they exist against a backdrop of personal chronology and historical events that must be accurately represented in order for your memoir to be engaging and convincing. Similarly, when writing fiction, you will disengage your readers if you don't ground your leaps of imagination in factual reality. If you are writing a police procedural mystery, for instance, you need to accurately represent how law enforcement really works. Even if you are writing an out-there futuristic techno-thriller, your story will have greatest impact if it takes off from a foundation of actual science and technology.

Why authors should research and fact-check

There are four strong reasons for authors of all kinds to do their utmost to write with factual accuracy:

—Meticulous research and concern for accuracy enhances your credibility.

—Avoidable errors can be off-putting to many readers; on the other hand, a reputation for accuracy can contribute to your reader retention. You want to attract readers, keep them, and avoid doing anything that might be a potential turnoff.

—Writing can be hard enough without your having to wrestle with a niggling feeling that you are not going the distance. Doing your research and fact-checking is a matter of professional pride.

—Research and fact-checking can be a source of new ideas or directions for either your current or future projects. Creativity and imagination may originate from within you, but both can be measurably enriched by research.

Doing your research: Sources of information for book authors


Today the first go-to source of information for most people is the Internet. Most users are aware that the reliability of sites and their information varies. For complex subjects, I therefore tend to use books by established authors rather than websites or blogs. But for basic information and fact-checking, nothing can beat the speed and convenience of the Internet.

To ensure that I am getting correct information or fact verification, I pick reliable sites such as Wikipedia and, where they exist, online versions of standard encyclopedias or dictionaries. When dealing with sites of lesser authority, I check at least three sources for the facts I am verifying. If they all agree, then I generally feel confident that the information is accurate. In case of discrepancies, I keep looking until a consensus emerges and I can eliminate the information that seems doubtful.

Personal library

Once upon a time, not so long ago actually, there was no Internet, and authors were largely dependent on libraries for research and fact-checking. In my case, I would make notes about facts that needed checking and bibliographic citations that I was missing. Then, every once in a while, I would take a break from writing and spend a day running up and down stairs in the university library stacks, filling in all the gaps in my information. This would generally take a whole day and was often exhausting.

To avoid these time-consuming and tiring excursions, like many authors, I found it useful to amass a personal library of reference works relating to the subjects I was writing about. Even today, despite the convenience of the Internet, I still value my personal library. Often, rather than going online, I find it is just as quick to pull a book off my own shelf and look up something in a source of proven reliability. My personal collection includes assorted dictionaries and style manuals, Oxford and Cambridge reference works on literature, book trade directories, and books on writing.

If you have the space and budget, you might explore the possibility of starting your own personalized at-home library. This can be a practical and satisfying complement to your writing activities.

The importance of books and digital research resources for book writers
Even in today's digital world, public libraries and
librarians remain among the best sources of information
and tips on effective research.
Public library

Most people have ready access to some sort of public library, whether municipal or university. These days many library holdings can be accessed online. Online library resources are a tremendous aid to research, as they provide the reliability of traditional information plus the convenience of the Internet.

Even if you have extensive access to online library holdings, don't entirely neglect paying the occasional in-person visit to a physical library. Librarians know how to find information with maximum efficiency and, often in minutes, can unearth facts and resources that you might take days to discover or altogether overlook.

The imperative of the authoritative author

Whether you rely on the Internet, compile your own book collection, or use public libraries and consult librarians, you owe it to your readers and yourself to be an author whose accuracy can be trusted. Know what you don't know. Get it right. Look it up.

Coming next week . . . "L is for LECTURING"

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