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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Editing Warfare: Getting Your Facts Straight

Whether you're writing a historical novel, a science fiction work that's heavy on the science, or a nonfiction book you need to get your facts straight. Nothing loses your readers (and potential agents) faster than bad facts. Get it right the first time with this handy guide to Editing for Accuracy from our guest blogger Amy Laurens.

Hi, I'm Inky from the blog Inkfever, and I'm here today to discuss Editing In Facts. There's a particularly reason why Liana asked me to handle this one: I've just finished writing a non-fiction ebook (The 33 Worst Mistakes Writers Make About Dogs) which required a lot of fact-checking!

So, here we go!

Step One: Do Your Research Beforehand, and Get A Draft Done
Yes, technically this isn't editing, but it's still very important to have in mind when you sit down to write a story - fiction OR non-fiction - that involves facts.

First up, you need to know your topic - whether it's the use of weapons, the mechanics of your cyborgs, or the technological level of your time period. You have to have something in which to ground yourself before you write, or it's going to make your editing absolutely nightmarish.

But it's also important to balance this with writing; don't let the act of researching overwhelm what you're actually supposed to be doing: writing. And most importantly, a lot of the time you won't actually know what you need to research until you're writing.

Sure, that 90 page treatise on the future politics of Gambia might be interesting - but will you actually use it in your book, or will it just be kind of assumed background?

Step Two: Don't Stop Reading - Or Writing

While you're writing it's often tempting to forget about reading, especially when it comes to editing. At least, it is for me, because I know I'm likely to get distracted by what I'm reading and forget all about what I'm supposed to be writing!

Referring to step one, these days I tend to under-research a bit, because I know if I don't I'll a) end up with a bunch of cool facts I never actually use and b) I'll get so distracted by getting the research 'perfect', I'll never write.

That problem aside, it is important to keep reading while you're writing. Not just taking a break to read fiction (taking breaks is vitally necessary to keep your creativity fresh, though the frequency of the required breaks differs a lot from person to person), but also non-fiction. Fiction is fun, and can show you how to write - but non-fiction gives you stuff to write about.

And the best way to absorb any topic is a little bit at a time - so take your time with your reading, keep at it while you're writing, and don't stress about getting everything right in the draft - because that's what editing is for!

Step Three: Complete The Other Layers

Both Liana and Michelle have done previous posts on layering, and on editing in layers. Unless you're either superhuman or write virtually flawless first drafts (in which case I'd still say you're super human :P), you can't possibly pick out everything in one round of edits - especially if you stumble upon gap chapters. Concentrate on the layers that come easiest to you first, and get those out of the way. Perfect the parts of the story you know are right.

Step Four: The Fact Layer

And now we get to the parts of the story that either need more information, or are just flatly wrong. Or the parts of the story that you wrote before you read that perfect detail you just knew would be right for that bit while you were being good and doing step two: reading while you were writing.

So now you go back to those places, and you check your facts.

Does A line up with B like it's supposed to? Is something you have in there contradicted by something you read about later? Is there a new theory that complements what you're working on, that you can use to introduce another side of the argument? Is there something you thought you had made your mind up about, only to discover in your reading that you changed your mind?

Now's the time to identify all those places and go back and insert the necessary details. This is kind of like a description check layer for those of us that write sparse drafts - you write the bones of the story, you flesh it out with the other layers, and now you're doing fine detail like the wrinkles around the eyes and the pores in the skin. You know. That sort of thing.

So, in the end, editing in facts is just like editing in any other layer - only you're constantly researching it before you write, while you write, and after you write.

Of course, this has the irritating side effect of sometimes not knowing when to stop - like my ebook. Every time I read it I think of a new fact I could incorporate, something else useful that readers might want to know about... But in the end, moderation is the key to everything, even in non-fiction books, because no one book can possibly cover everything about anything.

In selecting your facts you need to keep an eye out for which facts are actually significant, and which are merely shiny and distracting - otherwise you might find parts of your work that have too many facts are boring to read, and full of tell rather than show.

And that's the ultimate goal: to incorporate your research so seemlessly into your story that no one actually knows it's there - so that all your shiny, awesome information is shown to the reader, rather than told, and so that your story is crafted with finesse and polish.

Of course, it helps to know your topic when you're trying to do this - so if any of you are considering writing about dogs, or ARE writing about dogs, can I suggest you pick up a copy of my ebook when it comes out next Monday? O:)

It's full of interesting and useful facts about dogs, from a writer's point of view - so you know that the information you're getting will be not just shiny, but also significant. You can read the 'back cover' here; listen to me read out the introduction here; and you can enter a contest to win a free copy here :)

Thanks, Liana, for inviting me to post today, and thanks to all you readers out there for letting me share with you. This has been fun! :o)

Dog photos courtesy of Amy Laurens. Ink photo courtesy of and copyright to Saphirestaub.


  1. Great post! I write historical fiction so am up close and personal with research :)

    One thing I learned that I would add is this : if you get a request for a partial or full (not really at the query phase, but after that) - send a bibliography of your research with the manuscript. I have a friend who also writes historical fiction (published) and she gave me that idea...said it will let the agent/editor know you understand the importance of research and have been careful. They might be impressed.

    good stuff here!

  2. This is the perfect post for me to read right now. I'm just starting on my first historical fiction and the amount of research I'll need is overwhelming! Thanks for the advice :)

  3. Awesome interview! Love it! You are so helpful, both of you. I love layers. :)

  4. Great post! Also love Tess' suggestion of a bibliography.

  5. Brava, Inky One! Fun interview and great information!

  6. Oo, I love Tess's suggestion of a bibliography! Very shiny.


    Thanks for having me, Li! :D