February 9, 2009

Oops, and Double-Oops

Fact-checking is a dicey thing. Optimally, a writer fact-checks as he or she goes, making sure that each statement is ironclad before moving on to the next one.

As if. Look, I'm absolutely sure that the shuttle flies at 18 times the speed of light, okay?
Writing in the New Yorker, John McPhee relates that one sure way to fact-check a document is to publish, as “no mistakes go unnoticed by readers.”

In addition to thanking readers who correct mistakes, McPhee adds:
“If, in the reader’s letter, there is a tonal hint of a smirk, I cannot help adding, ‘If a lynx-eyed reader like you has gone through those thousands of words and has found only one mistake, I am relieved.’”

For sheer cold-sweatin’ fact-checking panic, there’s nothing like reviewing a published work and discovering a mistake. Hence, my attempts to make amends after the riveting first edition of An Architectural Guidebook to Portland came out in 2001. These range from “I made a boo-boo” to the fawningly obsequious. An example of the former:
A “lentil” is a bean. A “lintel” is a horizontal support above an opening like a door or window. Thus, in the “U.S. Custom House,” the reference to the building’s exterior “lentils” is incorrect.
As McPhee relates, the worst error of all is in saying a living person is dead. A fact-checker tells of someone who read in the New Yorker that he was dead. Outrageous! He wrote in and demanded a correction, and The New Yorker did so in its next issue.

This compounded the error, as the indignant reader really DID die even as the magazine was being printed.

Oops, and double-oops.

1 comment:

TS Booth said...

Celebrated Northwest scribe Stewart Holbrook received so many letters from readers--including many who felt obliged to correct a fact or detail--that he had a postcard printed that read:

Dear Sir or Madam,
You may be right at that.
Stewart Holbrook

Another printed card was intended for readers who took issue with Holbrook's portrayals of historic figures. It read: "But I shall use neither gilt nor whitewash. Nor tar. You may be right at that."